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In Spoken Here, Mark Abley takes us on a world tour from the Arctic Circle to Oklahoma to Australia in a fervent quest to document some of the world's most endangered languages. His mission is urgent: Of the six thousand languages spoken in the world today, only six hundred may survive into the next century. Abley visits the exotic and frequently remote locales that are home to fading languages and constructs engaging and entertaining portraits of some of the last living speakers of these tongues. Throughout this...
In Spoken Here, Mark Abley takes us on a world tour from the Arctic Circle to Oklahoma to Australia in a fervent quest to document some of the world's most endangered languages. His mission is urgent: Of the six thousand languages spoken in the world today, only six hundred may survive into the next century. Abley visits the exotic and frequently remote locales that are home to fading languages and constructs engaging and entertaining portraits of some of the last living speakers of these tongues. Throughout this exhilarating travelogue, he points out that the same forces that put biological species at risk—development, globalization, loss of habitat—are also threatening human languages, and with them, something very basic about their speakers' cultures.
1 Patrick’s Language
An old man watches a milky ocean roll in to the shore. High above the waterline, two children are skipping barefoot along an otherwise empty beach, its contours defined and guarded by a pair of mangrove swamps. A long, low island nudges the western horizon. This could be an afternoon scene on almost any tropical coast: the heat rising off the sand, a hawk scouring the sky. In fact, the surf is brushing a remote edge of northern Australia — remote, that is, except to the old man’s people, the Mati Ke, who may have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years.
One of the children pauses in her game. Among the fragments of driftwood and corrugated iron, the rusted fishing traps and crushed plastic bottles, she has found something different: a shell as long as her forearm. She looks up from the beach to the few scattered houses in the hamlet of Kuy. Then she calls to her grandmother, Mona, who is sitting as usual on a yellow foam mattress. Laid out on a verandah, the mattress gives a view of the sea.
The child uses her grandmother’s language, Murrinh-Patha. It’s also her own, and the daily language of a few thousand other people in the region. Most of its speakers live an hour’s rough ride away, in a town called Wadeye. The trip is possible only in a four-wheel-drive vehicle down a dirt trail that slithers inland through the silver-green bush, passing the corpse of a small airplane and fording the same creek twice before it links up with a gravel road that ends or begins in town.
Somewhere along that trail, as you skirt the treacherous pools of deep red sand or disturb a loud gathering of cockatoos,you pass a border. The border is no less real for its lack of fences, checkpoints, and customs officers. It marks the ancient division between the Murrinh-Patha land that includes the town of Wadeye and the Mati Ke land that includes the small outstation here at Kuy. In Aboriginal Australia, land and language are intimately related. Traditionally, the continent was de- fined and divided not only by its hills, creeks, and water holes but also by its hundreds of languages. Wadeye grew up in the 1930s as a Catholic mission, and the Mati Ke were one of several peoples who moved off their land and switched over — out of a mixture of respect, convenience, and necessity — to a daily use of Murrinh-Patha. They also learned English, so as to comprehend the noise of authority. At first, nobody realized that the Mati Ke language was slipping away.
From her home above a calm shore of the Timor Sea, Mona gives her granddaughter an encouraging shout. Then she turns to her husband, Patrick Nudjulu, to explain. Unless he is wearing his hearing aid, words are lost on Patrick. But as the old man of Kuy, he likes to know what’s going on. Besides, this is his land. Its stories belong to him. Standing there on his verandah, his beard and flowing hair the color of the snow he has never seen, his skin as dark as wild grapes, Patrick has the gravitas of a biblical patriarch — a tall one, with a sly sense of humor. Some days he doesn’t bother to put on a shirt. But if there’s any chance that strangers might be present, he always wears long pants and shoes. That way, it won’t be obvious that one of his legs is false — the aftermath of leprosy in his youth. A slight film over his eyes betrays the arrival of cataracts. But he can still see down to the beach; he can dream; he can remember.
“I remember all,” he says in English, his fourth or fifth language. “I was born in my own bush here. Therefore I can’t forget.” He sips from a tin mug of tea that Mona has brewed up on the open fire pit at the far end of the verandah. “I dream in Mati Ke. See all the past.” And maybe the future, too? “Yeah.” The old man is grinning. A few of his teeth are left. “Old future, and new future.” In his dreams, the fruit of the peanut tree whose seeds are eaten raw in the wet season is mi warzu. That’s the name of the fruit in Mati Ke. But if he mentions the dream to Mona, he reverts to her more powerful language, Murrinh-Patha, and talks about mi kurl. The saltwater prawns that his grandchildren find among the mangroves are a dhan gi in his own tongue. But to Mona and the grandchildren, they are ku tha-pulinh. The delicious goanna lizard that roams the bush all year is a wayelh in Mati Ke. But to speak of it and make himself understood, Patrick has to call the lizard ku yagurr.
A wide-eyed boy about a year in age totters over from the mattress where Mona is sitting. Children no more than five or seven years old take turns looking after him, hauling him back to his grandmother for comfort if he falls. Patrick peels a mandarin orange and hands it, chunk by chunk, tto the little boy. Conch shell in hand, the boy’s sister arrives beaming from the beach. Slumped beside Patrick’s bamboo fishing spear fartheeeeer along the verandah, an older grandchild on the brink of adolescence looks on. He and his mother are visiting from their home in Wadeye. His shirt is army fatigue; his hair displays streaks of blond dye; his gaze is sullen.
Patrick too spent many years in town. His family began to give up the bush when he was a boy. Over the decades, he watched Wadeye evolve from a resting place of hunters and foragers to a sit-down community, dependent on the welfare subsidies that Australia’s government, possibly with noble intentions, has chosen to give Aboriginal people. Deprived of the old habits of life, unable to embrace the new, a host of men and women forfeited their pride. Patrick did not. Twelve or fifteen years ago, when the government was promoting the growth of outstations as a way for Aboriginal people to regain a spirit of independence and self-control, he led his wife and some of their extended family away from the frustrations of town and back to his own land, the place he knew by heart. Not that they were returning to the bark-and-bough shelters of his childhood. The government built bungalows at Kuy, and erected a small water tower, and hooked up electricity. Patrick’s house has solar panels in its corrugated roof. One of the other houses is equipped with a satellite dish, and the children of the outstation go there to watch TV.
The TV pours a quick, bubbling stream of English into their ears and minds; but primary school and family life take place in Murrinh-Patha. Sometimes Patrick speaks to his grandchildren in Mati Ke, and he claims they understand. Yet whether they grasp more than a few commands, a familiar phrase or two, is open to doubt. They answer him in Murrinh-Patha: the language of their parents, their friends, their doting grandmother. Words in their grandfather’s tongue trip haltingly, if at all, off their lips. What Patrick Nudjulu hears only in his dreams is another fluent speaker of Mati Ke.
The lone elder, the half-comprehending family, the stealthy invasion of other languages — this scene is not unique to Kuy, or Australia, or the Southern Hemisphere. It is happening all over the planet, from the snow-peaks of the Himalayas to the humid rivers of West Africa and the shantytowns of great cities in South America. The phenomenon is not new, for languages have always been in flux; languages have always died. No one alive today can hold a conversation in Hittite or Nubian. But the sheer pace of change is unprecedented. On every inhabited continent, languages keep falling silent. New replacements are rare. Linguists believe that about six thousand languages still flow into human ears: the exact total is a matter of debate. By some estimates, a maximum of three thousand are likely to be heard at the centuryR
|2||Dreamers: Languages in Northern Australia||13|
|3||Constructing the World||43|
|4||Unseen and Unheard: Yuchi||53|
|5||Dont Vori, Bi Khepi||83|
|6||Leaving the Grave: Manx||95|
|7||The Verbs of Boro||121|
|8||The Lion's Tongue: Provencal||128|
|9||Melting at the Edges||156|
|10||The Words That Come Before All Else: Mohawk||163|
|12||Ways of Escape: Yiddish||201|
|14||The Iron of Language: Welsh||240|
|15||The Face of All the Earth||272|