Monday, July 12, 2010

Endangered Languages And life's Mysteries

Sometimes it is the mysteries in life that make you feel connected. Knowing that my family was expelled from Spain and settled lin Germany, I find myself wondering who I might be related to in the Spanish speaking world. Were there cousins who stayed back in Spain? Did some relatives go to the Americas?

Another branch of the family came from Istria. Croatian replaced Romance languages that were once spoken in Istria and Dalmatia. Did my family once speak Istro Romanian? Was Croatian recently adopted in the last 200 years by my family? Who knows? I find myself reading and rereading a New York Times article on a project to save endangered languages. There is actually an Endangered Languages Alliance, started by a professor Daniel Kaufman.

There are some interesting players in the struggle for survival of the world's languages. Some missionary groups, motivated by a desire to spread their religion, train themselves in numerous obscure languages and attempt to translate their scriptures into those languages.

The Soviets wanted to spread their vision as well, and boasted of lending alphabets to languages in the former USSR that had none. They gave a simplified Cyrillic alphabet to Mongolian that is being retained in the post communist era along with the classic Mongolian alphabet.

Rashi is studied not only by Jews who learn his Torah commentary but by linguists who are interested in the old French words that he used in his commentaries. Yiddish has similar value in the study of the development of the German language.

My all time hero in the preservation of a language is Sequoya, a member of the Cherokee nation. Despite having no formal education, he designed an 85 letter phonetic alphabet for the Cherokee language, bringing it to a new stage in its development. Such an undertaking is usually attempted by university graduates, but Sequoya did a magnificent job.

Once a language is written, it can be resurrected even if its last speaker passes away. And sometimes, a language is not as dead as had been thought. From the Romance languages of the Dalmatian coast to Coptic, sometimes there are pleasant surprises for those who mourn the death of a language. It's a pleasant thought that the human race has treasures and mysteries that still survive.

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