Russ Rymer spoke at 10am, Friday 19 May at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2017.
This was a free session – yes, free! What a joy to see at 10am, the first session for the day, that the room was almost full – there were around 300 people there, I found out from a volunteer.
I went into this session knowing nothing about the writer, aside from the small blurb in the Festival programme. I wanted to be engaged by the presentation, to be stimulated by new information, ideas delivered orally rather than by the written word. This is especially fitting given that Russ Rymer was speaking about the extinction of tribal languages around the world, which he then wrote into an article for National Geographic, winning an Overseas Press Club of America Award. I gather this is the Oscars of the journalist world. He has had a very successful and respected career as a journalist and writer, also being a Guggenheim Fellow.
Rymer went to three regions around the world, travelling with linguists who were doing their own research – likening them to Indiana Jones-types, and with locals who could also speak English. The first place he went to was the “dark hole of language,”as linguists know it, the remote village of Pilizi in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is in the far north-eastern corner next to Bhutan. This has been disputed land for a very long time, which has left much of the state untouched, and so a rich trove for researchers. Even if it did take three days to travel to Pilizi where the language Aka is spoken.
The second area was in the Mexican desert with the nomadic Seri people, around 1000 to 1300 of them, who have a very small vocabulary as, being nomadic, they have very few possessions that they need identifying labels for. Again, this area is untouched by the West, due primarily to the murder of the first Catholic missionary in the 1700s. The third language was that of the Tuvan people, in remote Siberia. The Tuvans live an urban existence much like we do, but their language is uniquely different from the rest of Siberia and Russia. Unlike in the other two communities, approximately 200,000 people speak Tuva.
This sounds pretty simple really – investigating tribes and their language around the world, suffer living in primitive conditions for a little while, speak to a few linguists, and kaboom, you have an article, and bonus an award! Not so. And not for a minute did Russ Rymer go down this path. This project of his was a life changing experience, and has turned him into an advocate for the preservation of thousands of near-extinct languages.
This is something difficult for the average first-world native speaker of English to understand. Never once have we felt that we could communicate an idea or message in any other way than we do. Consider, for example, our decimal-based counting system -learning your numbers is probably the easiest thing about the English language. Even the French change the way they count when they get to seventy. Or words for colours. In one of the languages Rymer investigates, there is no word for yellow. Yet their most precious items are necklaces made from yellow stones picked by ancestors from the rivers. The rivers were picked clean of the stones generations ago, so now there is no word for yellow, only for the necklaces. In this same language, the Aka, there are only two words for animals – those that can be eaten, and those that can’t. For the Tuvans there are 89 different words for a cow!
The anecdotes and the facts were incredibly interesting, as was Rymer’s travelogue, particularly of his time in India. But the whole crux of his research, his article and his presentation to us was: what happens when the last person who speaks the language dies? It is gone, vanished, just like that. And no way of recovering it.
And this perhaps is the greatest challenge facing language extinction – the people who speak the language are dying out, and so the language also dies. What is lost when a language dies? Language is not only words, sounds; it is the expression of ideas, thoughts, culture, identity, spiritualty, communicated in its own unique and precious way. He informed us that there are 7000 languages in the world, dying at the rate of one a fortnight. We now have only a few languages spoken by many. Look at the millions who speak Chinese, the 1.2 billion speakers of Hindi. These are staggering figures.
Here in New Zealand we have our own indigenous language – Te Reo Māori – that could well go down the same path if the careful nurturing and attention given to it over the past few decades does not continue. In Australia, 90% of the indigenous languages are considered endangered.
Loss of a language is also loss of a culture, loss of identity, loss of pride. So much of how things are done in a community are wrapped up in oral communication, for example, in Pilizi, disputes are solved by an elder or shaman telling a story complete with metaphors that fixes whatever the problem was. What was particularly interesting was hearing about the amount of environmental and ecological knowledge, centuries old, wrapped up in these endangered languages. Being urban-based, we have lost touch with the land, with nature. Scientists are finding that by interviewing peoples in their native languages, they are learning much more about the local ecosystems than they ever could have by their own observation and research.
I could go on and on with what I learnt and enjoyed from this session. I was especially pleased at the end when two women, one younger Māori, one older Pakeha, stood up, greeted him in Māori and thanked him most graciously for his time and for contributing to the preservation of endangered languages. The younger woman was now ensuring her children were learning to speak Te Reo, which led Rymer onto his final point: How absolutely crucial that it was for parents to talk to their children and grandchildren in their own language, not just for the sake of the words, but for the preservation of the ideas and cultural values that those words articulate.
I found this session very enlightening. Rymer was a wonderful speaker, warm, gracious, funny, and I think a little stunned by what these two women had to say, stating that he will have to come back to New Zealand to study further the state of Māori language in this country, something it was pretty clear he knew very little about – his appalling pronunciation of the word Māori– but he was so gracious and humble, I think we could forgive him!
Attended and Reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ