Why the Oro Win are fighting to preserve their native language—and what that means
for the rest of us.
James Geary | October/November 2011 Issue
When I started learning Dutch, the word that gave me the most trouble by far was “gezellig.” As an American newly arrived in the Netherlands, I had never before encountered the gruff, guttural sound of the Dutch “g.” Pronouncing it at the beginning of a word was challenging enough, but pronouncing it at the end of the same word—with only one syllable in between—seemed beyond my abilities. Yet with dogged persistence and lots of valuable pronunciation practice gained from ordering Hoegaarden beer at the pub, I finally managed it.
But it took me a lot longer to manage the many different meanings of gezellig. Of course, I knew gezellig roughly translates into English as “cozy.” But “cozy” doesn’t even come close to encompassing the word’s many subtle shades of meaning. I quickly learned that an experience, like going to a film with friends, could be gezellig. But then I learned that the film itself could be gezellig, too, een gezellige film. So my understanding of the term had to be gradually extended from personal relationships to a bewildering variety of circumstances and physical objects, from films and books to flowerpots and living rooms to neighborhoods and cities and, indeed, to entire cultures.
I eventually realized that gezellig described not a person or a thing but a peculiarly Dutch state of mind, an acute sensitivity to the psychological feel and physical detail of a place or a situation. I learned a new concept along with the new word, and gezellig expanded my emotional and experiential as well as my linguistic vocabulary.
I was reminded of my early struggles with gezellig when reading about the Oro Win, an indigenous tribe living in the Amazon Basin of Brazil. Just six native speakers of the Oro Win language remain. Only identified by Westerners in 1994, the language seems almost certain to die out with the last remaining native speakers, all of whom are elderly.
Languages die all the time and to the extent that they die without any encouragement from us, language extinction (like species extinction) is a natural process. But that process is speeding up, due to everything from globalization to telecommunications to economic necessity. Of the roughly 6,500 languages in the world today, about half are endangered—and about one of those dies every two weeks.
Why should we care? One reason is that languages are natural resources. Many minority languages contain valuable knowledge about the natural world. In Australia, for example, botanists have discovered new species by studying the different Aboriginal names given to seemingly identical plants. Language is also an important tool in archeology, suggesting how populations moved and when cultural innovations appeared. When a language disappears, this knowledge disappears with it.
But languages are renewable—and renewing—resources, too. They are renewable because they grow, evolve and innovate as a result of interaction with other languages. One of the reasons for the prominence of English is the ease with which it incorporates ideas and vocabulary from foreign tongues. Linguists may be able to preserve the Oro Win language but probably only as a museum piece. For any language to thrive, it must be part of a living linguistic ecosystem. Speakers of minority languages, especially young people, need opportunities for development and growth if they are to regard their mother tongues as cultural assets rather than economic liabilities. Preservation should not result in stagnation.
This is where language as a renewing resource comes in. Few of us will learn the Oro Win language, or any other of the thousands of endangered languages on the planet, but all of us can learn how languages reveal new ways of seeing the world, how languages open up fresh perspectives on foreign cultures and foreign frames of mind. The world is a book. If we don’t know another language, we read only a page.
James Geary, Ode’s editor, thinks learning about language is very gezellig.
Photo: Tim Snell via Flickr