Languages are a bit like wild animals: they may thrive, die out, fall victim to predators. When a language disappears, an entire culture, sense of humor, way of thought, and approach to naming the world all go with it. A certain music also perishes, the melody carried by the language. One language dies every 15 days on average, and more than half of the world’s 5,000 languages will die out in the 21st century. Most at threat are the languages of Indonesia, New Guinea, and Africa, whereas the greatest predator is nowadays Anglo-American (a role previously played by Latin, Spanish, etc.). A language may find refuge in its alphabet, whereas its sound is ephemeral, drowning in the winds of history. Power, money, the media, and schools all push languages out of use, but the most effective factor is prestige. A language attacking from outside may coexist for a while with a native, household tongue. But there comes a time when the tribal language becomes embarrassing, a social burden, and then it gets abandoned. Eventually, the last people who know it pass away. The very last Indian woman who knew Cupeño died in California in 1987, and things have gone similarly for Matipu, Amapá, Sikiana…
I myself have come across a few languages in a state of demise. In southern France, Languedocien has nearly disappeared. Just a few years ago I attended theatre festivals there and heard songs sung in the language, but now it has passed away with the older people. Teachers in French schools used to rap children over the hands with a ruler for speaking such a “jargon.” Once when visiting Louisiana I tried to speak French with the Cajuns, the descendants of immigrants from French Canada. The older ones still managed to respond, but their children spoke only American. On a street in Warsaw, I once asked two Belarusian painters what their native tongue sounded like. They grimaced uncomfortably; they spoke only Russian. We are now witnessing the end of Yiddish, once the widely-used language of European Jews that took a severe blow during the Holocaust. It is now spoken by just a few Orthodox Jews in Israel and a few klezmer musicians in New York are singing old Yiddish tunes.
Languages are also similar to wild animals in the sense that their origins are unknown. The Old Testament tells the legend of the builders of the Tower of Babel, who were unable to communicate after Yahweh confused their languages. However, it is doubtful there ever was just a single language; languages differ from one another so greatly that linguistic diversity must have prevailed even long, long ago. Back during the Renaissance some 10,000 languages are thought to have been spoken in the world, twice as many as now. Many languages were destroyed by European missionaries in the Americas and Australia.
Perhaps the only language that has ever come back from the dead is Hebrew. After the Babylonian captivity (600 years before the birth of Jesus), the Jews abandoned Hebrew for the related Aramaic. More than 2,500 years later, Hebrew was recreated through the political will of the state of Israel, backed by the Bible. The ancient language Aramaic, in turn, proved to be extremely resistant to time and invasions. I once met a girl in Vienna from the Christian minority in Syria, who still prayed in Aramaic – she could probably have prayed alongside Jesus. Another optimistic note has been the decisions of European institutions in recent years to protect regional languages. Today a French teacher could not whack the hands of a pupil for using the Languedocien “jargon,” and efforts are being made to keep Breton and Welsh alive. With today’s legal framework, the Irish might never have lost their language. But still, the overall picture remains the same: languages are dying.
What lesson is there here for the Polish language? Let’s admit straight away that we Poles are inescapably, incurably Polish precisely because we were taught Polish words in our early childhood, because it is only in Polish that we can truly laugh or cry. As the actress Maja Ostaszewska puts it: “I love this language with the love of someone condemned; only in it can I name my own feelings precisely. But is that patriotism, or more like being sentenced? Perhaps both.” If we want to remain Polish within today’s increasingly unified Europe, we have to remember that language is the first and last bastion of our national identity. Polish does not face the threat of dying out, but it does face a serious problem of environmental pollution. Polish is, like other languages, strongly under attack from Anglo-American. The prestige factor mentioned above is at work here. It is cool, modern, even “sexy” to use Anglo-American phrases, names, even sounds (“wow!"). Our alphabet has acquired new letters (x and v), but do they really belong to Polish? We treat our own inferiority complex by borrowing things from the “better” world – once France, now America. It is not clear that Polish society has the determination to resist such pollution of the linguistic environment, like the French do. If it did, we should be systematically coining Polish words to denote new phenomena and concepts coming in from the world, with the media and journalists leading the way here. Unfortunately, they, too, succumb to prestige and vogue.
The Polish poet Norwid once wrote: “It is neither sword nor shield that defend our language, but masterpieces!” Every fine work of prose or poetry helps strengthen the Polish tongue. On the other hand, under the new European regulations, the Silesian and Górale dialects and also the Kashubian language stand greater chances of surviving than they once did. Diversity is the spice of life. Despite their similarities to wild animals, languages (even unwritten ones) are in fact one of mankind’s greatest achievements and what distinguishes us from the animal world. That is just one of the many reasons to defend them.
Prof. WŁODZIMIERZ ZAWADZKI
PAS Institute of Physics
© Academia nr 2 (38) 2013