Once upon a time, American farmers had a choice of over seven-thousand different varieties of apples to grow. They can now pick from only about a thousand. In Fruits We'll Never Taste, Professor Beth Ann Fennelly writes that: "...over 90 percent of the crops that were grown in 1900 are gone." What harm might a narrow gene pool cause?
Fennelly is a teacher of English, so her chosen topic may seem to go a little astray of her education. But that's only until you realize that she isn't just writing about fruits and vegetables. She also talks about languages that are being lost. There are concepts in other languages that really don't have a one-word-to-one-word translation in English.
In my girlhood I thought that each word in English had its exact equivalent in every other language, and language study was the memorization of these codes. I later learned that each language is a unique repository of the accumulated thoughts and experiences of a community. What do we learn about a culture by examining its language? The Zuni speak reverently of pena tashana, a "long talk prayer" so potent it can only be recited once every four years. The Delaware Indians have a term of affection, wulamalessohalian, or "thou who makest me happy." The Papago of the Sonoran Desert say Sbanow as the superlative of "one whose breath stinks like a coyote."And it's not just the loss of languages that bother her. It's the loss of the richness of complexity in the world. Different ways of thinking, of seeing, of caring, and of living. She doesn't offer any suggestions on how these things might be protected. But, raising an awareness of our loss is a start.
During this century, 87 languages spoken in the Amazon basin of South America have become extinct because their native speakers were dispersed from their lands or killed. When these languages died, they took with them not only the specialized knowledge that the tribes had gained from thousands of years of natural healing and conservation, but also ways of living from which we might have learned something. In the absence of these examples, as John Adams wrote, "we are left to grope in the dark and puzzle ourselves to explain a thousand things which would have appeared very simple if we had . . . the pure light of antiquity."