Every Day, Another Language Dies
A Formal Farewell to Words We'll Never Hear Again
Pressed with copper, inked on vellum, Ortelius’s 1570 Theatrum orbis terrarum (the Theatre of the World) was an atlas of the visible, the earth as stage, the seas as audience, 160 maps graphing possibility, illuminating the desire for the unexplored.
Each cartograph was legend to the coveted marvels of the known universe: spice, salt, fur, gold, moon, salt, stars, love, the whim of elements engraved in its corners—sun, fire, the rage of Poseidon, cold wind strapped to a mortal at sea. The boundaries, invisible to birds and despots, are marked by turrets, blurred by the rivers the dead cross alone at night. Here are the Nubian elephants, here are the hot tents of the Tartars, who used the blood of horses to slake their thirst, here the locusts of Ethiopia, who devour the corn and leave the meadows and pastures bare of grass so that the people do oftentimes leave their native soil where they were bred and born and are forced, for want of victuals, to go seek some other place to dwell on. Here is the Congo, where Ortelius says before the entrance of the Portugals into this country, the people had no proper names, but were called by common names, such as stones, trees, herbs, birds, and other creatures. Here are the continents, once married, now divorced by the currents of the sea. Here is the terra incognita of kindness and empathy, here are urns you will return to after your long wanderings for power or love.
Recent broadcast from the terrarium of sadness and destruction: it will take between ten and fourteen days from now for another of the world’s 6,900 languages to die out. So let’s say that today the last speaker of something somewhere is dying.
Exhibit A: Alban Michael. Out of the 7,700,000,000 people on earth, he was only one left who could speak Nuchatlaht. He lived near Nootka Island, he spoke to his parents in dreams, as there was no one left to speak to him. And then one year ago, he was gone, himself a dream, his language buried with him.
Exhibit B: After millennia of surviving in the Caucasus Mountains on one vowel and 84 consonants, Ubykh died in the grave of Tevfik Esenç. He said, I see you well instead of I love you and You cut my heart instead of You please me, the sounds of his words described in a fable as the noise of a bag of pebbles poured on a sultan’s marble floor.
Every human infant is a despot. Watch one emerge—first the head extruding slowly from the hot liquor of the sac, then the face turned to cough the brine, then one arm reaching out from the first mine, deep in the underground sea. Here is the lips’ first taste of salt, first gold, first light. Its first shriek is the most perverse desire to own and be owned, skin, liver, pinkies, hair, heart, all of it needs to belong, to the mother, to the father, to the country beneath it, it wants its own sky as soon as it sees light, fistfuls of cloud to swallow and devour. Every tiny hand grabs at the delicious world, each slivered nail wants to rake its sands and its sadnesses, merciless, indiscriminate. Every arrival is a possible colossus, every bundle a gentle teenage runaway with stringy bangs and a tuneless guitar, each tinny cry a cracked glass of solitude hoping to break open the sky. It takes time before these little parcels learn their origins and destinations, before they understand whether they are here to own or be owned. It takes a box of Ghirardelli chocolates ten to fourteen days to ship via freight from San Francisco to Minsk.
As it turns out, it is the authorities who are most nervous when it comes to languages. Through sameness of language is produced sameness in sentiment and thought. Barbarous dialects should be blotted out and the English language substituted, said the US Federal Commission on Indian Affairs in 1868.
“Greed defines us. Even when we try to call it love. It is still wanting, still inhalation, still one mouth sucking on and spitting out the world like bones.”
Exhibit C: It took 600,000 men working 43 years to build the Tower of Babel. It is said in the Torah that those in charge behaved heartlessly toward the weak and sick who could not assist in its construction. They would not even allow a woman in travail to leave the work. When God smashed the tower to smithereens, many of its builders were changed into apes, evil spirits, demons, and ghosts. The rest wandered the earth, deaf to each other, confounded, babbling a thousand tongues, interpreters racing in the rain to explain the dreams of God. Babel is hence referred to in some texts as the mother of confusion. And barbarous, then, or barbarian, is Greek for “one who babbles” while “jabber” pertains to seafowl, fools, Jews, monkeys, and the Flemish.
Goodbye, Thracian and Yana, Mesmes and Old Burmese, Mandan and Tukumanféd and Classical Nahuatl; farewell, Akkadian and Assyrian and Knaanic and Bidyara and Yiddish, the language Singer wrote in because he liked ghost stories. Also, I believe in the resurrection. What will all those Jews have to read when they come back to life if I don’t write in Yiddish? Farewell, Venetic and Mura and Old Norse, the languages of mint masters and tribesmen and hatters, and engravers, the languages of servants and slaves and the architects of aqueducts. Goodbye, !Xoon and its five interpreters, the language in which a cloud is a house for rain. Yahi didn’t even have a word for goodbye. You stay, I go, Ishi told the white men who befriended him, and then he did, taking his songs and his name with him. It takes about ten days to get the results of your lab work. In ten days you will receive a courtesy call from our offices. In ten days your building permit will be approved by the city council.
It turns out that there was an ancient civilization that could speak Tree. They could understand the language of roots and the noise of the fungi, a highly developed tongue albeit difficult to translate. They refused to write down the sounds because they could hear the molecules of the papyrus crying. They also had one word that they learned from the wind that they only used with stones—and absolutely never with each other—that, if uttered, was a spell, a name you could carry with you that would open the gates to the city of forever. The word died with them, buried in the folds of old brains and skin, zippered into the earth beneath a tel somewhere between the Tigris and the Yellow River.
I find that I can rely upon the 1951 “Practical Guide to Speaking,” the endangered language of Tongan for both teaching and learning the most elemental phenomena of the world. Each English phrase is compressed into one, easy-to-remember Tongan word. All you have to do is to repeat after the tone. The animals bite. My sheep’s hut has fallen into disrepair. My goat has aborted. Wild boars have sadly depleted our crops. The thing is dead. The people have died. Our humanity is finished.
Greed defines us. Even when we try to call it love. It is still wanting, still inhalation, still one mouth sucking on and spitting out the world like bones; the planet’s marrow, one long banquet of planked sturgeons and roasted pheasants. Such continents to swallow, such rivers to burp. If not Mussolini, Stalin. If not Stalin, you. It is so easy to pretend there is an order to things, an extant plan to determine who breathes and who dies, a diagram explaining to the unwitting mothers why some are breeding fascists and others Plutarchs when the wombs look virtually the same. The only sense that can be made of it all comes not through God but through midnight conversations with the ghost of Lucretius who tells you that music was meant for the heavens and not to inspire blood. Whenever I speak Tlingit, I can still taste the soap, says one tribal elder, remembering how his grandmother would rub the suds in his gums, the tiny clean bubbles of English rising toward the ceiling, carried on his hiccup toward the unreachable sky.
Exhibit D: Two old women sit stiffly on a small upholstered sofa somewhere in Alaska. I worked real hard on fish today, one says improbably to the other. You rest, the other responds. I eat today, one says into the camera. Seaweed, salmon, berries, bread. Hooligan grease, potatoes, tea. Tastes really good. The other smiles, speaks to the videographer in English. These are some of the only words they still know in the moribund language of Haida. Soon they will be dead but they will leave behind a partial dictionary and a YouTube video of their conversation.
At the edge of the Timor Sea in Australia, Exhibit E, the last speakers of Mati Ke, a brother and sister, live in separate villages, and because they are siblings, they may not converse. I miss you, one says to the wind. I have been dreaming of our mother, have you seen the plums this year, the wildfire is fierce, the waterbirds are growing thinner, do you still pray, do you sleep with the language we swam in during the womb? The wind garbles the messages so when they arrive they are scratchy and unintelligible, like the recordings made by linguists who set up camp in the outback.
“In the Caucasus, a mother will bring forth a child for whom Ubykh is only a strange memory, its 84 consonants tinny in his tiny ears.”
Nine years ago, the last Pyrenean ibex died in Spain. Scientists were able to replace the genetic material in eggs of domestic goats by using DNA taken from skin samples. The infant ibex lived seven minutes before dying. “One seven-minute life span does not translate to much quality of life, and even if the kid had lived, who would have taught it how to behave like a Pyrenean ibex?” questions John Platt in a comment for Scientific American. But someday a little ibex will be tottering on the computer-simulated rocks of the Cantabrian Mountains on his four genetically produced legs, herdless, siblingless, cousinless, taking ibex lessons from humans on iPads who clap when he correctly mashes leaves in the zoo. Next year they will implant the semen of a desiccated mammoth into a mother elephant. Her strange infant will be born with a furry coat and a glimmer of glacial light still in her eyes.
In the Caucasus, a mother will bring forth a child for whom Ubykh is only a strange memory, its 84 consonants tinny in his tiny ears. I feel that I have drunk the milk of a strange woman, that I grew up alongside another person. I feel this because I do not speak my mother’s language, says the man from Namibia. His mother perhaps left to go berry picking and took her language with her, which is what the last speaker of Tofa tells us is their metaphor for death. It takes approximately ten days for raspberries to ripen with a constant temperature of 88 degrees Celsius. It has been ten business days and the check still has not arrived in the mail.
<3, <3, <3, says the text that arrives on my daughter’s phone from her beau, which, if translated correctly, seems to mean I love you in sideways ice-cream cone. One can also say, ____________________, which translates to I am in love with you up to my kidneys in Hebrew, which, according to Dante, was the language in which the lips of the speaker formed. It was dead for centuries before it was revived to say things like Do you have a cigarette? and The bombs will be dropped at midnight in Rafah. Bora had one word for “to love from the heart” and another word for “pretending to love” and you could, if a Boran was alive, say, Onsra, which means I have loved you for the very last time. Who needs divorce when one compact word illuminates all? In the now-dead language of Assyrian you could say, Ta¯btu, which could mean Of all those who serve in the palace there is no one who loves me there is among them no benefactor of mine to whom I might give a present and who might accept it and intercede for me and it can also mean you, sorceress, seek me out, you keep circling me with evil intent. Depending.
It is late July. The season of hot and delicate grasses is upon us. It is the month of the edible lily bulb, the era in which it is bad to collect birch bark, the window for picking ripe cherries, the hour of molting birds, just one of the 13 seasons known to the Siberian Yakutsk. Or it is the time to eat corn on cobs and pray for America. Depending. No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, so helpless and so ridiculous, wrote Emerson. We can say, The Container Store is, like, the third exit off the freeway? Like just past the Nordstrom? Or we could say, Go inland three river forks downwind of the black sister rock and it will take you as long as two kettles take to boil to get there. At 15 miles a day it will take you about 12 days to walk from Prague to Vienna. It took the Jews ten days to march from Stutthof to the Baltic Sea and those who made it all the way there were shot.
One language to rule them all, one language unites them. Chief among misguided policies is the mandate of a multilingual government, says a certain congressional representative in California. By discouraging immigrants and their children from using the English language, this policy has erected a linguistic barrier that keeps many immigrants from becoming full participants in the society they have chosen to join. Ten days from now the blastocyst inside you will affix to the uterine wall.
Water mama papa brrr, says the baby in the bathtub, an impeccable host to the newly minted mother tongue of the world. Mama water papa brr. Doggie donkey me. Me go. Me go bye-bye. Who needs a world without a word for indigo or plop, without vowels or numbers after five? What use are those 37 tiny fish taxonomies or the compound words for castrated reindeer? Who needs words like abubu for mythical creatures that no longer exist? I had constructed with skillful craftsmanship two fierce deluge monsters to place at the royal door to the left and right of the locks, says one Assyrian to another. It probably took two weeks. Two weeks after the implantation of the blastocyst, the heart develops in the embryo. Why eat lilies? So bitter. Ortelius’s tomb in Antwerp reads that he “served quietly, without accusation” and now his bones are pressed against the water table, which rises as the glaciers melt, flowing beneath him mysteriously as though called by the time-telling tides of the moon.
Goodbye, Livonian and Yurok and Old Avar and Salish, Aka-Kora and Aka-Jeru and Aka-Bo and Aka-Cari and Aka-Kede; goodbye, Natchez and Bohemian Romani and Carpathian Romani and Tasmanian; and goodbye, old women eating hooligans with their tea, goodbye to the Kaua‘i ‘o‘o, whose love song cooed the Hawaiians to sleep and whose wails could be heard when their young fell from their nest. Goodbye, ibex and tiny fish with the missing taxonomies, ten days from now, thanks to the ichthyologist from Brookhaven, your cells will replicate in a petri dish somewhere in a lab in Houston. This year his two-week vacation is mandatory. Hello, new tiny fish. Hello, pretend mammoth that will walk the earth someday soon with its partially manufactured old soul. Babel is also reputed to be the mother of singing. Goodbye, tiny black disappearing dots on the map where two very old people meet or do not meet to say tea, cake, your friendship is both storm and flood, your eyes are lanterns, I am about to speak and about not to speak, I have carried off to Assyria the rest of his children and his entire family and even the bones of your father, the city in which we live will not rise from ruin, then they are quiet, just saying the words ruin, ruins, hello, ruins, in the way only they will know, the way that, once buried, will never return to our ears.
From Conjunctions: 70. Used with permission of Conjunctions. Copyright © 2018 by Heather Altfeld.