Un populu diventa poviru e servu quannu ci arrubannu a lingua
Translated by Sara Plaza
It seems that, in the beginning, all men and women spoke the same language. But one day, it occurred to them that it would be a good idea to construct a city and build a tower so high that it could reach Heavens. In the believe that punishment should fit the crime of such presumptuousness on their part, God confused them with many languages in a way that they could not understand each other and were impossible for them to keep on making that building higher and higher: the well-known Tower of Babel.
This is the story written in Genesis (xi, 9), the most read collection of ancient Semitic oral traditions of all times. Thousands of languages and speakers: all of them different from each other, all of them incomprehensible to the rest. God's Punishment, no doubt.
This impressive variety of ways of speaking, words, grammars and sounds make up an important part of our cultural diversity, which is one of our major treasures as species, according to the UNESCO's Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2002). However, as it usually happens with humankind, we are destroying this miracle with our own hands at every turn. Just have a look at the following data from 2005 provided by UNESCO itself to confirm my previous statement:
... only 4% of the languages are used by 96% of the world population; 50 % of the world languages are in danger of extinction; 90% of the world's languages are not represented on the Internet; some five countries monopolize the world cultural industries trade.
[Source: Knowledge versus information societies: UNESCO report takes stock of the difference].
Certainly, the use of some languages as means of exchange (e.g. English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese) in order to overcome linguistic barriers and facilitate communication can help us a lot. However, these languages have stop being a "vehicle" to become "dominant speeches" by pushing the rest aside and successfully removing many of them from the face of human memory.
What happens when a language is lost? I would like to share a poem with you, "Lingua e dialettu" ("Language and dialect"), written by Ignazio Buttitta in his mother language/dialect: Sicilian.
mittitulu a catina,
attuppatici a vucca:
é ancora libiru.
Livatici u travaggghiu,
a tavula unni mancia,
u lettu unni dormi:
é ancora riccu.
diventa poviru e servu
quannu ci arrubanu a lingua
addutata di patri:
é persu pi sempri.
Chain up a people,
cover its mouth:
still, it is free.
Steal its employment,
the table it eats at,
the bed it sleeps on,
still, it is rich.
becomes poor and slave
when it has the language inherited
from their parents stolen:
it is lost forever.
Without the words we speak and use at a daily basis, our life has no sense at all. Many concepts that are unique to our cultures, many ideas that were born in our hands and later adopted by others (even by using our own language) would disappear. As the word dies the idea does, too, no matter how hard other languages try to reproduce it. What would Latin American music be like without local words such as "joropo", "huapango", "cueca" or "huayno"? How do we name many animals and plants if terms like "ñandú", "vicuña", "quirquincho" or "colibrí" are taken away from us? How will Inuit people manage to name its surroundings if we replace all the words they use to refer to the many colors and textures that frozen water has, with the general term "snow"? Our language is the vehicle for expressing our culture, a custom-made vehicle that meets all its requirements. Without language we would be nothing at all; because a people without its language cannot find its north and becomes lost.
There are many peoples that have lost it already, many peoples that have had to adopt foreign languages and have forgotten the sounds of their parents and grandparents. Latin America is a great continent full of broken memories and subdued voices. We should know, better than any others, how a people felt when has its language stolen and which the consequences are of such a lost: something that also happens in Africa, in Asia or among European minorities.
As librarians, as information managers and culture advocates, what do we do about it? Our collections, are they a home for all languages spoken in our community, in our country, among our users? With all due respect, I doubt it. Resources, spaces and budget cuts make it easier to commit ourselves to "dominant" leanings. What is "small", "little" or "slight" –valuable as it might be– has no importance at all. The same can be applied to the mass media, publishing companies and many other culture and information channels. The world has been organized –in every single aspect– to fulfill an "evolutionary" obligation: only the strongest will survive. What is referred as "minority", "weak", "insignificant" does not count at all and, consequently, must disappear. And in no time it would be removed from the face of the earth, unless we become aware of its real value.
The good news is that there are many people who do not resign themselves to being quiet, and there are a good number of others who, in an independent way and risking a lot, commit themselves to study, recover, publishing and disseminate their endangered languages and literary traditions. And we are also many getting in love with their work and with the sound of words that we never heard before. For those of you who have an interest in the linguistic diversity of our planet, and want to learn more about it (features and problems alike) I highly recommend you to have a look at the following online sources: the websites Omniglot, BBC Languages homepage, CoE Euromosaic, and Linguapax, Terralingua project, French initiative Babel and UNESCO's MSST Clearing House Linguistic Rights.
For those who want to learn a foreign language, the Internet can be a privileged environment. Those with exotic likes may have a look at the UN Peace Corps handbooks, which allow you to learn quickly languages such as Romanian, Guaraní, Estonian, Filipino, Wolof, Uzbek, Azeri, Ukrainian, Arabic, Swahili, Kazakh, Bulgarian, Russian or Armenian. You can download all of them from ERIC free of charge.
There are plenty of pages with linguistic resources, and this announcement is addressed to special libraries dealing with languages, which use to strongly depend on the books they store and "dominant" resources, without noticing that there are thousands of documents in Open Access archives that can be easily accessed by their users.
You may think that mine is a utopian discourse, and also think that if you know your own language plus a more general one (that is to say, English) it will be easy to move around the world without problems. Perhaps you are right. However, I have traveled a lot and, even if I am fluent in English and have reached an intermediate level in a set of "known" languages, I always try to learn as many sentences, expressions, and words as I can of those other languages that nobody would learn because are "minority" idioms. And I can assure you that they have always been of use to me: in Korea, in Malaysia, in Sweden, in Norway, in Ecuador... For not everybody speak English, Spanish or French, believe me. We may wrongly believe that those languages are "minority" idioms but their speakers do not agree. Either would I if one of them was mine.
We should not forget that using a "dominant" language as a vehicle is only that: a bridge. If we really want to understand other people and come closer to their culture we should learn their language (and the other way round). Bridges join peoples as long as they cross them together in both directions.
A world where many different languages can be spoken does not necessary means a lack of communication as homogeneous and totalitarian discourses pretend us to believe. The lack of communication has nothing to do with the number of languages, but with our incapability to listen to their speakers and understand their ways of thinking. As long as we preserve this linguistic plurality, understand that our identity is "ours" because others have their one identity as well, and feel proud of our cultural joins there will always be a way to demolish those walls that are meant to separate one from each other day after day.
And, if in the end it was a God's punishment, we have now the opportunity to make the best of it and demonstrate that the story can be told in a different way: "fortunately, the author of this punishment did not attain his purpose".