Wednesday, 3 February 2010

On learning an endangered language

I have a fondness for obscure languages, but Greenlandic has the edge on Latin, the only one in which I can claim any real degree of fluency. With at least 50,000 speakers, it is still a useful means to demand whisky and stamps and ask directions when lost in a blizzard.

Hotel Arctic – in English for tourists

But for how much longer? The United Nations culture agency has declared that two variations of the Greenlandic language are facing potential extinction. UNESCO has predicted that 10% of the languages used around the globe will disappear over the next one hundred years, including North and East Greenlandic. The declaration comes in the publication of the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which also warns that West Greenlandic is considered ‘vulnerable’.

Peter Bakker, a Danish language expert, was quoted in the Greenlandic press saying that some 2,400 languages are considered endangered by UNESCO. ‘Dead languages give social problems,’ said Bakker, rather fatuously. ‘People who lose a language lose an understanding of their social status and live their lives without a part of their identity.’

Bakker makes it sound as if one loses a language overnight, like a pair of reading glasses, in which case I’d be stumped. But even should the loss occur over a series of generations, it cripples morale and understanding. And the Greenlandic perspective on the planet is increasingly relevant and irreplaceable (see Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams, for a mesmerising 400-page appraisal of the Inuit understanding of the Arctic ecosystem).

Greenlandic is specifically honed to express the subtleties of the Arctic environment (being, for example, famously well-equipped with words for different kinds of snow); the concepts it presents are precise, practical, and deliciously unexpected. The words aggregate, as in German; they are daunting in length but intensely expressive. We are all familiar with schadenfreude; if only more of us had cause to use the term nuannaarpoq – ‘an exhilarated delight in being alive’.

A serious case of ilissiverupa, Upernavik Museum

Today Beathe Møldrop, who works at Upernavik Museum, pointed out that ilissivik means ‘shelf’ but ilissivit means ‘bookcase’. A subtle difference. As for those with too many shelves and bookcases, ilissiverupa is the verb for ‘putting something in a safe place but being unable to find it again’. And the fact that Greenlandic has a specific term for something that I so often need to say disposes me greatly in its favour. Sadly languages are even more vulnerable than reading glasses, and if you lose them, even if you tried to put them somewhere safe, it is unlikely that they will ever be found again.

No comments: