Assimilation

I’m sitting here this morning getting ready to go to work (and being truly appalled at the amount of housework I didn’t get to last night, when I was a little frazzled, and dicked around instead)… when I come across this post over at A Step At a Time. Native languages are going away in Russia.

No surprise, really. Russia and China both play a double game of trying to force assimilation, just like the U.S. did in the 19th century… only, as usual, neither country is honest enough to admit it, let alone admit, like we did, that doing so was a mistake. I’ve heard stories of folks doing museum work in Kazan desperately trying to preserve their heritage while simultaneously doing everything possible to hide the face of what they’re doing, lest they come to unwanted attention and literally get their museum shut down. And, yes, both countries are still that bad. This sort of thing is unfortunately not at all uncommon.
So I listened to this Koryak song, and another one that’s Selkup. Besides maybe-actually recognizing the word “bird” in the latter, I could have fallen out of my chair. Both of them have rhythms that just say “home.” Though, fair warning: the Koryak song is sort of dreamy… the Selkup song is an outright lament, and paced as such. You’re going to get funny looks if you play it at work.

And there’s pretty much not dick anybody here can do about it, besides simply bring it to folks’ attention, and, if you happen to know one of these folks… learn a poem or a song…

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30 Comments

  1. Anna

     /  February 28, 2007

    Yes, I am STILL amazed it did not happen with my country. That is so sad…

    Reply
  2. Happycrow

     /  February 28, 2007

    Yup. And parts of it are coming close, what with academic freedom potentially going away.

    But still nothing like what these guys face. This makes the Dine’s language-survival problems look like cake by comparison.

    Reply
  3. Let me play devil’s advocate: there is a natural force in countries that are working towards industrialization and “modernity” that is a powerful influence on what families speak in their respective homes.

    There are two things in play here. First, there *is* oppression and bigotry at play. The languages that my family lines have lost are Choctaw, Gaelic, German, and French. The Choctaw were beat at school if they dared to utter a Choctaw word. That is similar to the Gaelic. The other two lines were lost as a result of efficiency.

    In any market-driven society, especially, there is a tendency to learn the language that does the most business. If you move to Thailand, there is a good bet that your kids are going to pick up a pretty fair amount of Thai, because it is really hard to do business of any type without knowing the local language. Witness how many hispanic people that I know that really do not speak spanish. That is not because they are prejudiced against their own blood-line, it is just that they were raised in an english-speaking environment. It is more efficient for them to learn the ‘lingua-franca’ and stick with it. It is the same with the Irish, as their children need to speak languages that will allow them to do business on the continent and England.

    That does not mean that the loss is not sad. The Choctaw have made a valiant effort to regain a fluency among the Choctaw youth, but they are up against a wall. The fact of the matter is that now, the people that are going to do that are simply good at languages and they have the time and will to learn what is essentially a foreign language. I agree that the loss is in some ways incalculable, but it is also inevitable.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
  4. Alex

     /  February 28, 2007

    I fully agree- which is why English is the current language of commerce and at one time French used to be language of diplomacy. Languages will disappear for a variety of reasons and many people will never know what has truly been lost.
    The only way to keep a language alive is show that it has value, such as the Navajo code-talkers in WWII or some other specialized interest. Otherwise they will die out since it is not economical, or “endorsed” to do so.

    Reply
  5. happycrow

     /  February 28, 2007

    No argument: these folks are losing their language the same way that Gaelic and Choctaw are in danger. Cuman, on the other hand, a language that I wish I could use, basically died of natural causes…

    Reply
  6. Alex

     /  March 1, 2007

    Is Gaelic really in danger? I had thought that it was alive and well in Ireland. At least I hear they are still teaching it and the youth mixes Gaelic and English in everyday talk.

    Reply
  7. Anna

     /  March 1, 2007

    I think Russ meant Gaelic as in Scotland.

    Reply
  8. Mike

     /  March 1, 2007

    You could add Wales to that as well right? Or are they separate?

    Reply
  9. happycrow

     /  March 1, 2007

    They’re all separate languages, or dialects at least. But in America, Gaelic, which was relatively common, is extreeeeemely rare.

    Reply
  10. To answer your question regarding the Irish Gaelic, Alex, I work with someone (in Boston) whose parents are Irish immigrants. She said that Gaelic is still taught in schools, at least in her family’s area, though it is getting more rare that people will speak the language on the street.

    Russ: Just a curious musing…since it seems that various languages and some dialects of the more known languages are dying out, do you think that, over a period of time, there will come a day when everyone (at least in industrialized areas) speak only one language eg Spanish, English, French?

    Reply
  11. Alex

     /  March 1, 2007

    I don’t mean to preempt Russ’s answer, but all of human history shows that there won’t be a unified language – you’ll always have localized versions/dialects/styles that make things different.
    Examples of evolving language in the US and the UK:
    US: Spanglish
    UK: Hinglish (part Hindu, part English)
    Even the Germans are struggling with English words creeping into their language and replacing proper German translations and they’re real sticklers for teaching the proper German in schools. The oddest language blend I ever heard was from my good friend who would mix , with ease, English, German and Amharic with his friends who also spoke the same blend. Turns out there is a sizable group of Ethiopian expatriates who do this since they were all taught in German-sponsored schools when they were kids back in Ethiopia.

    So the morphing of language and the ending of old forms seems to be perfectly normal.

    Reply
  12. Interesting indeed. So basically, with the increase in international trade and manufacturing, language is going through another evolution, similar to the way it evolved during and after the crusades?

    Reply
  13. It is interesting to me that the only lexicon larger than the ancient Greek is now English. I really do think that the languages are going to change as more and more peoples come into contact and have the need to communicate. In the ancient world, if you wanted to participate in commerce, you had to have at least one person on your team that could read, write and speak Greek. It was the language of education in Rome and in Egypt.

    Now, English is the official language of every airport tower in the world. As a result, English is going to diversify. I actually think that is better than the alternative. When the French insisted that no foreign words would enter their language, and essentially “froze” their lexicon, French went from being the language of diplomacy and science to a place where it is just another Eurasian language.

    Reply
  14. Given the increasing ubiquity of Engish, the vast use of Spanish as a common tongue in South America plus the massive push towards Mandarin in Asia, I think we’ll all end up speaking Spangdarin in a couple hundred years.

    But that’s quite different than what you’re talking about. At least the Turks don’t officially jail people for speaking Kurdish among themselves. Officially, anyway. The best way to create integration isn’t to wipe out languages, but simply to forbid marriage of blood-cousins. We did that here specifically to foster breakdown of ethnic enclaves, and it works.

    Reply
  15. Happycrow/Russ

     /  March 1, 2007

    yep. English is going to keep its dominance for a long time, even over Spanish, for a couple of reasons:

    1. English absorbs Spanish, and pretty much most other languages, much easier than Spanish absorbs English. You can speak English with almost no grammar and still be perfectly understood.

    2. The side effect of that flexibility is that native English speakers tend to have trouble dealing with other languages. So “emigrating out” of English is relatively difficult.

    Reply
  16. I think English-speakers are just unused to the concept of regular grammars. Quick: what are the plurals of box, bone, alumnus and inspector general?
    :-)

    Jim

    Reply
  17. Alex

     /  March 1, 2007

    boxes, bones, alumni, inspectors general

    I’m such a dork

    Reply
  18. I do not think it is a function of who has better grammatical skills. Alex, you are not a dork just because you have basic grammer. It has more to do with the idea that some languages provide better opportunities. Russian has something like nine verb declensions, and yet they continue to use all of them. English is, as a priest I met in Rome once said, “the bastard language.” OK, so what?
    English bases its meaning on word placement rather than the word’s ending. That means that it is a highly flexible language and can absorb a great deal before it becomes incomprehensible to another speaker. That makes it the language you learn in a huge percentage of the world. I am not saying that it is not valuable to make English speakers learn other languages. I am saying that it will be necessary for most people of the world to speak English way before it is necessary to teach 9 different languages in the States for commerce to continue. And…by the way…..the UK be damned…..they are learning American English now faster than we are learning theirs because of necessity.

    Reply
  19. I said declensions when I meant cases….so sue me…..

    Reply
  20. Mike

     /  March 1, 2007

    My lawyer will be calling shortly.

    Reply
  21. Heh. Yeah, in class — remember that I’m an English professor, teaching community college students how to write a basic 5-paragraph essay — I call English “the vacuum cleaner of different cultures’ words. ‘Deja vu’? That’s English now. ‘Raccoon’? English. ‘Onomatopeia’? English. ‘Boondock’? English.”

    Of course, certain words are still originally English — like one-word cuss words! :-)

    Reply
  22. Mike

     /  March 2, 2007

    $(*& Yeah!!!

    Reply
  23. blackpine

     /  March 2, 2007

    I call it the ashtray language. I also point out that the coolest word in your language, whatever it may be, will get glommed by English with nary a bat of an eyelash if we think its cool. we are a language with seven daddy’s and counting.

    By the way. I am slightly tipsy because the greatest love of my life broke up with me. Just so you know.

    “You aren;t a man until awoman breaks your heart. That’s your diplomma. Cuz that shit will either kill you or make you fat.”

    -Ricahard Prior PAoet Laureate.

    Reply
  24. Personally, I think that is what has made English such a strong language. Not only has it not gone through persecution by governments (to my knowledge) but it readily adapts (like Lizardqueen mentioned) to accept new “foreign” phrases, colloquialisms, and slangs. As another example, I don’t find too many words in German that have been added to the dictionary, but there are a TON of words in the dictionary today that weren’t when I went through basic grammar in elementary school.

    Russ read the article about certain languages disappearing in Russia the same day I heard a news tidbit about teachers becoming concerned that today’s youth are no longer learning proper grammar within the English language due to the increase in IMs and Text Messages. I just thought it was an interesting contrast to Russ’s message.

    Reply
  25. The point of my rhetorical question wasn’t just the English imports foreign words, like, oh, “pundit” (Hindi for “priest”), but that we actually incorporate partial foreign grammars too, depending on the words’ origins. In that way we’re different from, oh, say German, where the word fits one of four declension systems and that’s that. And if we don’t like the grammatical system because it’s too hard to remember (like adverbs?), we just chuck it.

    It’s like a pidgeon-tongue that’s too big for its britches.

    Reply
  26. happycrow

     /  March 3, 2007

    And we also intentionally mess with the grammar in order to add shades of meaning.

    @Coffeespaz: IM’ing and the like are adaptations, clearly, and from what I can tell, proficiency with grammar and spelling is definitely down. And yet, these kids have no difficulty being understood…

    @Blackpine: Sorry to hear. Not fat yet, but I’ve come real close.

    Reply
  27. I remember a lesson from a linguistics professor that said something along the lines of “a word or a phrase in any language has exactly the meaning that most people think that it does.” That is the boon and the bane of any language that has no fear of adapting words from other languages, or, in point of fact, scientific language.

    French is very regulated. Good for them. It has also rendered their language to being ‘quaint’ rather than useful in a world-setting. That is a bit of an over-generalization, of course, but not by much. Papers published at the CERN facility are generally in German or English, as those languages have adopted an easy attitude about taking in foreign terms to make ‘new’ words. (Of course, in German those words are usually fifteen feet long in Arial 9 point.)

    Reply
  28. happycrow

     /  March 5, 2007

    And let’s not get started on the footnotes!

    Reply
  29. Actually, James, that’s a strength of English in particular — to borrow identical words from other languages to represent some shade of meaning that the general term doesn’t necessarily imply.

    Reply
  30. Exactamundo, Hoopy Frood!

    Reply

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