I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Recreating Babel

While my own anthropology training actually did not include much linguistics, I have always been fascinated with the subject. And, in the last two days I have seen two articles that sparked my thinking. The first article was on the Oneida Nation of New York, whose language was dying with the elders. The tribe worked with Berlitz to develop an intense curriculum, then paid several members to learn the language. Those first students then became the instructors for others, and they are working to teach the language in the schools (and, just as important, have the kids care about learning it).

The second article was about Ethnologue, which is an amazing resource on the world's languages. According to the latest edition, there are 6,912 living languages in the world--an increase over the 6,809 in the 2000 edition. An interesting contrast to the reported death of languages. Of course, Ethnologue is not so concerned with how many native speakers there are, and the lines between what is a dialect and what is a language is always a fuzzy one...And Ethnologue, having missionary origins, counts a language if it is distinct enough to need its own Bible translation. The article does point out the contradiction between a resource recording and presumably preserving languages, which is based in missionary work that does in its own way destroy cultures.

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