American University is located in Washington, D.C., at the top of Embassy Row. Chartered by Congress in 1893 to serve the public interest and build the nation, the university educates active citizens who apply knowledge to the most pressing concerns facing the nation and world. Students engage with leading faculty experts and world leaders, learning how to create change and address issues including the global economic crisis, health care, human rights and justice, diversity, the environment and sustainability, immigration, journalism’s transformation, corporate governance, and governmental reform.
TUVAN Pictured: rider on the steppe Where: Tuva, Russian Federation Speakers: about 250,000 From the dictionary: [ezenggileer] to stirrup; to sing with the rhythms of a riding horse INFORMATION PACKAGING All languages, large and small, embed cultural knowledge. In English the various words for a horse’s age and gender illustrate this: stallion and mare for male and female horses, colt and filly for young male and female horses, or foal for even younger horses. By a certain age, most English speakers can decode the meaning beneath those labels. The language retains a residue of a previous age, not so long ago, when animal husbandry played an important role in American society. Unlike global languages like English that spread geographically, indigenous tongues stay rooted for thousands of years in a particular area, preserving a wealth of concentrated ancestral knowledge. Tucked into them, sometimes only as single words, are deep layers of meaning or information packaging, says Harrison. This became clear to him while conducting dissertation research in southern Siberia, where he lived and worked with a family of nomadic Tuvan yak herders. In addition to gaining empathy for their imperiled way of life, including the looming loss of their ancestral tongue, Harrison made a discovery that challenged a central tenet of linguistics: that all languages are essentially the same, with nearly identical rules for creating their grammar, vocabulary, and other facets of language. Harrison recognized that the Tuvan language reflected the community’s specific environment. For a Tuvan speaker, using the correct form of the seemingly straightforward verb to go, for example, requires knowing in which direction the current of the nearby river flows. Harrison observed that the Tuvans, in a feat of lexical engineering, bundle complex concepts into single words, reflecting their unique and efficient way of speaking and categorizing their herds. One such 18 AMERICAN MAGAZINE APRIL 2014 “Ten years ago, when I would use the phrase ‘endangered languages,’ people would do a double take. The phrase was simply not in circulation, not a term people acknowledged. I’m seeing that now people get it. They know that cultures are under threat, that languages are going extinct.” —David Harrison TUVAN: PHOTO BY LYNN JOHNSON TSESUNGUN: PHOTO BY CHRIS RAINIER, ENDURING VOICES PROJECT
TSESUNGUN Pictured: Señor Anselmo Nuyado Ancapichun and Señora Teresa Maripan at the sacred site Shuka Kura (House of Rock) Where: Choroy Traiguen, Chile Speakers: fewer than 10 From the dictionary: [ko] water YOKOIM Pictured: Luis Kolisi on the Karawari River, modeling traditional body paint for tourists Where: Papua New Guinea Speakers: 1,000 From the dictionary: [japakupan] hello YOKOIM: PHOTO BY CHRIS RAINIER, ENDURING VOICES PROJECT useful word for yak herders is dönggür (doong-GUR), meaning male domesticated, uncastrated, rideable reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not ready for mating. “You have to be out in the landscape interacting with the animals and the features of the landscape to even understand the grammar of a language,” says Harrison, who first recognized his knack for language during a trip to Poland as an AU undergrad. “Language is so much more than something contained in the head. It spills out into the environment and the world around us. That was my big eureka moment: that the academic discipline of linguistics was too narrow to apprehend the language.” LANGUAGE SHIFT Linguists do not know exactly how or why languages die. They seem to diminish in strength and eventually disappear for many reasons—social, economic, and political—but almost always from outside pressure. Children appear to hold the key to keeping a language alive, says AU linguist in residence Robin Barr, who teaches in AU’s Department of World Languages and Culture. “The more people you can get in a speech community who are using the language and using it with their children . . . so they learn not only the grammar and the pronunciation but also all of the culturally important lexical items,” the better the chance that the language will flourish the way healthy languages do. The classroom, past and present, has played a role in language vitality. The elderly Guenteo sisters from Chiloe Island lament that their community schools teach classes mostly in Spanish. In the United States, past policies of cultural assimilation drove many Native American children to government-run boarding schools, which prohibited them from speaking their languages. In western Mongolia today, young nomadic herders face similar pressures in schools, where they must speak the dominant Mongolian language. Indigenous languages fade for other reasons. Young speakers might come to view them as out of date, socially inferior, or an obstacle to employment. Or they might opt to learn to read and write in a dominant language and not keep up the oral tradition of their native tongue. When children understand a small tongue spoken at home but refuse to speak it themselves, a shift to a dominant language occurs. Their children, the next generation, miss the chance to learn to speak it fluently, if at all. Language shifts also happen in global languages—when, say, huge numbers of young Spanish speakers migrate to America with their parents and cast aside their native tongue for English in order to fit in or keep up with their English-speaking peers. Despite this shift, the Spanish language remains strong, because so many people, including children, still speak it around the world. Harrison, who was born on a Cree Indian reservation to missionary parents, has become a fervent advocate of cultural autonomy for indigenous groups. Speakers of endangered languages, he says, are often given a false choice that has dire consequences: either learn a dominant language and leave behind their ancestral tongue or not learn it and risk social, political, or economic hardship. Around the world, however, multilingual speakers prove that people can be afforded another choice: to become fluent in another language, or languages, while holding on to their heritage tongue. LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 19