[Reader-list] languages, and their death

Rana Dasgupta eye at ranadasgupta.com
Tue Apr 25 13:34:27 IST 2006

April 21, 2006
Two Literary Festivals Will Highlight Endangered Languages


SOME 6,500 languages spoken in the world today. And, according to the 
2000 census, you can hear at least 92 of them on the streets of New 
York. You can probably hear more; the census lumps some of them together 
simply as "other."

But by the end of the century, linguists predict, half of the world's 
languages will be dead, victims of globalization. English is the major 
culprit, slowly extinguishing the other tongues that lie in its path. 
Esther Allen, a professor of modern languages at Seton Hall University, 
calls English "the most invasive linguistic species in the world." 
Spanish and Hindi are also spreading, subsuming the dialects of South 
American Indians, and of the Indian subcontinent.

In the next two weeks, however, some of these endangered idioms can be 
heard at two international literary festivals that celebrate languages 
big and small, as well as the power and resilience of words themselves. 
The festivals are taking place all over town, in places as diverse as 
the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New York Public Library, the Bowery 
Poetry Club and the United Nations.

The PEN American Center is holding its second World Voices Festival of 
International Literature, beginning Tuesday and running through April 
30. Ms. Allen is the curator of the gathering, and the novelist Salman 
Rushdie is its chairman as well as a participant in a discussion at Town 
Hall on Wednesday night called "Faith and Reason" — the festival theme — 
with 134 writers from 41 countries around the world.

Among the 58 events is a panel, "Writers on Their Languages," with the 
novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga, who writes in the endangered language 
of Euskera, or Basque, and Dubravka Ugresic, whose most recent novel is 
"The Ministry of Pain," and who writes in Croatian. Other writers 
scheduled to participate include Orhan Pamuk, from Turkey, E. L. 
Doctorow and Martin Amis.

Then there is the People's Poetry Gathering, from May 3 through May 7, 
sponsored by City Lore and the Bowery Poetry Club. There will be some 60 
poets reading their work in English and in their native tongues. Among 
the highlights is a performance of poetry and music by Kewulay Kamara, 
whom City Lore commissioned to return to his boyhood home in Dankawali, 
Sierra Leone, in 2004 to recreate an epic poem destroyed during the 
recent civil war. The story goes back to before the birth of the Prophet 
Muhammad and incorporates slavery and colonialism in West Africa.

There will also be a reading by Robert Bly of some of his translations 
and his own poetry, and a program on endangered languages at the United 
Nations, co-sponsored by the United Nations SRC Society of Writers, the 
U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the World Intellectual 
Property Organization.

American publishers have one of the lowest translation rates in the 
Western world, according to Andrew Grabois, a consultant for Bowker, 
which tracks the publishing business. Only 3 percent of books published 
in the United States are translations (4,114 in 2005), Mr. Grabois said, 
compared with, for example, 27 percent in Italy. As a result, linguists 
contend, much of the English-speaking world knows little of other 
countries and cultures.

English may be eating up other languages, but paradoxically translation 
into English is vital for their survival, Mr. Rushdie said. "People are 
not going to learn Serbian," he said. "If Serbian writers are going to 
survive in the world, they will have to be translated into English."

Ms. Allen said, "The whole point of this festival is inviting these 
people from outside English into the conversation, and making a place 
for them in English."

Among those invited to the Poetry Gathering is Mr. Kamara, of Sierra 
Leone. Mr. Kamara's native language is Kuranko, part of the Manden 
language group in West Africa. Mr. Kamara's father, Assan Fina Kamara, 
was a farmer and teacher of Koranic studies. The Kamaras are members of 
the Fina caste: orators, or M.C.'s, who recite at ceremonies like 
weddings and funerals. The younger Mr. Kamara came to the United States 
when he was 18. Now 52, he teaches in the African-American Studies 
department at John Jay College. His epic poem "Voices of Kings" tells of 
the origins of the Fina caste. One part relates the story of how the 
Prophet Muhammad rewarded an old couple for feeding him when he was hungry:

The old man returned to manhood

The old woman returned to womanhood

The child they bore

They called Fisana

Muhammad names Fisana and his Fina descendants, "the voices of faith."

The epic has many parts, and recitation can continue for hours, even 
days, Mr. Kamara said. He has also interwoven it with his own story.

"It's not linear, you can start anywhere," he said. So far he has 
written down about 100 pages. Mr. Kamara and Abdoulaye Diabate will sing 
and recite "Voices of Kings" at the Poetry Gathering accompanied by 
African instruments, the bala (a precursor to the xylophone), tama 
(talking drum), flute and horn.

Another endangered language being highlighted in both the Poetry 
Gathering and the PEN festival is Euskera, or Basque. Mr. Atxaga, the 
Basque writer, wrote in an e-mail message from Spain that he is fighting 
to preserve Euskera because it is "a language we know well, it helps us 
to live."

And, he said, there are the layers of subtleties and precisions that are 
lost when a language dies.

In the Basque language, for instance, gender exists only in the second 
person. "If you're speaking to a woman to ask her, for example, whether 
she has a book, you say 'Ba dun libururik,' " Mr. Atxaga said. "Whereas, 
to a man you'd say 'Ba duk libururik.' That nuance of 'n' or 'k' can be 
important in telling a story. Details are always important in literature."

Yet Mr. Atxaga said he disagrees with the idea that language gives 
insights into a people's consciousness and culture. "Presumably, a 
national epic can be translated," he said.

"All you need to do is read the thinking of the Nazis," he said. To 
them, "the German language was unique and carried with it a singular 
concept of the world and life, revealing the essence of the German 
people," he said. "This quickly reached absurd extremes."

Ms. Ugresic noted that the same thing has occurred in the former 
Yugoslavia, where language has become intensely politicized. 
Serbo-Croatian has broken up into Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and 
Montenegrin, all of them very similar but with speakers of each language 
claiming — sometimes violently — the supremacy of their own. Beatings 
and book burnings have occurred when one group objected to the language 
of the author. "Crazy linguists are ready to project many things into 
languages," she said by phone from Amsterdam, where she lives. She added 
that languages are always in a continuous state of transformation, and 
that to try and get in the way is useless.

"Some languages are dying and some are appearing," she said. "That is a 
much deeper and more interesting dynamic."

Maybe, Ms. Ugresic said, the new language of globalization will be 
"Smurfentaal," a kind of slang with bits of Dutch and other languages, 
among them Moroccan, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian and Spanish, spoken by 
young people on the streets of Amsterdam.

"Every honest linguist will tell you the preservation of language is a 
lost battle," Ms. Ugresic said, "because you can't deal with language 
dogmatically. Language is a living thing.

"So let it go."

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