FEBRUARY 23 2010 11:00h
“Universal Man” isn’t as universal as we once thought. Just ask the aborigines - in one of their languages that refuse to die.
“Time that is intolerant…..worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives”, wrote W.H. Auden in his beautiful elegy for William Yeats, but it could serve just as well as a guiding concept for “Ethnologue.”
“Ethnologue” is not on any bestseller list and you won’t find it on mass market bookshelves anywhere in the world, but it has everything required of a great work of classic literature: Passion, love, greed, man’s cruelty to man, the triumph of the human spirit, the creative force of imagination, the will to conquer, and the even stronger will to resist and transcend forces bent on your destruction.
So what is it, anyway? It’s a 600-page compendium of the world’s languages, begun in 1951 as a guide for Christian missionaries. Back then, a mere forty languages were represented. In the latest edition, which was released in May 2009, there are 7,358, an increase from the 6,912 in the last issue in 2005, in spite of gloomy predictions of linguists and others that globalization would eradicate cultural and national distinctions. It seems, in fact, to have had the opposite effect.
Marimanindji, Adynyamathanha, Pitjantjatjara. Only a few of the scores of exotic and melodious Australian aboriginal languages which, like their speakers, were not expected to survive colonization by British settlers in 1788, economic marginalization, loss of political autonomy, and pacification by force, disease, and depopulation. The aboriginal population has even grown since the last census, and their languages endure, although the first is only spoken today by 15, the second by 20, and the third by a mere eight people, perhaps a single family somewhere in the Australian outback who wants to talk about and pass on to its offspring what is important in its own, not an imposed, language. Gumbajnggir, Bundjalung, Yurugubul. The richness of the names intimates an even greater richness of the languages themselves.
The North American Indian population, according to researchers, fell from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900, which represents one of the worst of many historical genocides. In 1990 the Census figures showed there were 1,959,234 American Indians and Alaska Natives living in the United States, a 37.9 percent increase over the 1980 recorded total of 1,420,000. The increase is attributed to improved census taking, but even more to a larger sense of self-identification during the 1990 count; in other words, a greater desire in the age of globalization and homogenization to identify with one’s cultural and historical roots, which translates into an increased interest in preserving one’s native tongue.
Although the Apache language is nearly extinct and spoken today by only 18 people of the 1,000 remaining members of the tribe, other Indian languages are experiencing a resurrection; for example, Cherokee (approximately 20,000 speakers of the present day 308, 000 member Cherokee population in several U.S. states), which is being actively taught in churches, schools and other classes in the community. Over 282,000 Indian families speak one of the native Indian languages.
The pidgin English emerging from the mouths of degrading Indian caricatures in old Western films has been supplanted in modern times with Cree, Kickapoo, Lakota. How tragic the disappearance of Lakota would be, a language whose word for “child” translates into the infinitely richer “child that is holy.” Languages that have, for example, scores of words for “buffalo” and dozens for “corn”, and a more enduring history in the United States and Canada than English.
One might argue that in areas with highly developed communications technology, which is not the situation in aboriginal areas, American Indian reservations, or, until fairly recently, Croatia, people would in fact experience a greater sense of merging and togetherness, but even this has not been borne out. Earlier behavioral traits and national identities are proving to be surprisingly enduring. People are using the greater freedom that technology has created to form new groups and ethnic zones.
In addition to the traditional hyphenated ethnicities such as Italian-American, African-American, and Polish-American, all of which proliferate within the United States, and throughout the world wherever ethnic minorities have settled, there are also more and more atomized sub-groups within the actual ethnic group, such as the Black Law Students Association, the Greek-American organization “Daughters of Penelope”, or the “Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.” Irish-Americans have a wide range of ethnic sub-organizations: “the Ancient Order of Hibernians”, the “Emerald Society”, “Friendly Sons of St. Patrick”, and the “Young Irish Fellowship Club”, as do the Jewish-Americans. From our territory, there is the “United Macedonian Diaspora”, the “Slovene National Benefit Society”, and the “National Federation of Croatian Americans”, all of which represent a huge shift from the attitudes of past generations, who wished only to assimilate into their new country, to be simply un-hyphenated “Americans”.
It is this flat opposition to being subsumed into a huge, amorphous mass, to surrender what one was, is, and will be, that represents the most effective and enduring weapon against the ravages of unchecked globalism. But there is also a danger that too much atomization within the same racial or ethnic group works in perfect harmony with the aims of globalization, as it eventually leads to isolation and dispersion of the group. At any rate, the “Universal Man” isn’t as universal as we once thought. Just ask the aborigines, in one of their scores of languages that simply refuse to die.