When Ouma Aenki Kassie, an elderly story-teller, died of chicken-pox at the age of 71, she left a unique language on the verge of extinction in South Africa. Kassie was part of the Khomani people of the Kalahari Desert, whose language became known to researchers only in 1998, and died in January 2013.
Frighteningly, she was one of the last speakers of the Nluu language that is listed as critically endangered by UNESCO. According to researchers, there are perhaps only three speakers who can now speak the 112 sounds and 45 distinct clicks of the Nluu language. Can you imagine living in a world where no one speaks your language?
While the International Mother Language Day 2021 is being celebrated worldwide, one language is disappearing in every two weeks, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.
According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, 230 languages went extinct between 1950 and 2010 out of approximately 6000 languages existed. It is still continuing at an accelerated pace. Terrifying as it may sound, examples of dying languages are prevalent in every continent. Bangladesh is not in a safe zone as well.
Like a dying star, soon to be exploded in a supernova, critically endangered language evaporates along with its diverse linguistic flavour, cultural heritage, historical perspective, and precious knowledge accumulated over centuries.
At least 43% of the total spoken languages in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world according to the United Nations.
According to UNESCO, a language is endangered when parents are no longer teaching it to their children and it is no longer being used every day. A language is considered nearly extinct when it is spoken by only a few elderly native speakers, like N/uu.
However, in reality, people do not just abandon their mother tongues. There are contributing factors to the gradual decaying of languages. According to the National Geographic report, political persecution, a lack of preservation, and globalisation are to be blamed for the dwindling language diversity. The greatest linguistic diversity of a country usually comes with the inherent problem of endangering mother tongues.
When a government pursues a policy of just one dominant language, other languages may gradually perish. On that note, we shall ever remain in debt because of our indomitable attitude and the supreme sacrifice made by our language martyrs in 1952. Accordingly, to many linguists, a language may go extinct, when a community has a negative attitude to its own language in the face of a dominant language and does not protect it.
Over time, being bilingual and then eventually losing competence in traditional languages may also result in a language becoming extinct. One instance of this form of transformation is the gradual disappearance of Coptic as a spoken language in Egypt following the emergence of Arabic in the 7th century.
History testifies that in El Salvador, after the genocide of 1932 in which Salvadoran troops killed tens of thousands of mostly indigenous peasants to suppress an insurrection, the indigenous Lenca and Cacaopera abandoned their languages to avoid being known as Indians. Besides, migration, urbanisation, and spread of new technology are the factors that can have adverse impacts on language longevity.
Good news is that linguists around the world are trying extensively to prevent the disappearance of languages. They make audiotape, videotape and written records so that the endangered languages do not disappear into oblivion. Google has launched a project to help protect endangered languages. Unless there is documentation, such as sound recordings, languages are gone forever, says Keren Rice, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto.
If preserved, language can be revived as well. Hebrew, which died out as a colloquial language in the 2nd century CE, is the most prominent example (although it continued to be used as a language of religion and scholarship). In the 19th and 20th centuries, the spoken language was resurrected in a modernized form and is still the first language of millions of people.
With over 54 ethnic minority groups speaking at least 35 languages, Bangladesh may experience language extinction in future. Language diversity is the manifestation of cultural elegance; however, the threat of language extinction is real and upon us. On this International Mother Language Day, can we not endeavour to foster, promote, and preserve language diversities in our country before it is too late?
Unless appropriate steps are taken, many of these languages may disappear because of several contributing factors mentioned before. Even, there are possibilities of language deformation in case of our beloved Bangla language due to factors like globalisation, urbanisation, and cross-cultural, cross border influences etc. It is high time for rejuvenating the place of Bangla by subsiding the hierarchies of other languages, for example, English.
In conclusion, loss of a language comes at great danger of losing the identity of a particular human race. The essence of multi-ethnic and rich multicultural diversity may gradually perish if not cared for.
UNESCO considers mother language to be an essential part of culture and identity, and carriers of values and knowledge. They are vital to the preservation and transmission of traditions, expressions, songs, jokes and rituals – which make all our lives richer.
An integrated approach combining United Nations' contribution, government's attention, collective effort from the society, and individual language enthusiasts' initiative may just be good enough to preserve our diverse languages prevailing within our boundary. We should look forward to building a multilingual country living in peace and harmony.
Golam Towhid Al Kibria is a graduate from Bangladesh University of Professionals and a language enthusiast. He can be reached at [email protected]
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.