These days we all understand the value of information. We also understand the need for knowledge management and transfer. In this vein, David Harrison‘s presentation (see below) does a great job of explaining why language represents the collective knowledge and technology of a group of subject specialists, a repository developed and refined over centuries. So when we lose a language, we don’t ‘just’ lose fuzzy concepts like a unique worldview or history. We also lose verifiable scientific discoveries, classification systems and taxonomies that top Western scientists haven’t come close to ‘discovering’ for themselves yet. Despite this, Harrison explains, most of the world’s languages have yet to be documented in writing and at least half are at risk of extinction by the end of the century.
This is one of my favourite presentations ever and I’ve watch it a couple of times since I first came across it a few months ago. It covers what many of us as professional translators already know and appreciate, but sometimes forget. Most importantly, linguist Harrison gives us the layman’s terms and everyday examples we need to explain just why an appreciation and understanding of other languages is more relevant than ever to our lives today.
The numbers are a bit hazy, but a mere 150 years ago there was anything between 250 and 750 distinct Indigenous languages or dialects in Australia. (I’m guessing we don’t have a more exact figure because the history-writers didn’t bother counting). Today, fewer than 150 remain and about 130 of these are highly endangered. That’s arguably 40,000 years of knowledge specific to this continent that continues to be flushed (counterclockwise, of course) down the dunny – technical data and insights on its environment, its variable weather patterns, precious water courses and unique flora and fauna. Meanwhile, bureaucrats dither and pass the buck over falling literacy rates and the rest of us bemoan the country’s lack of “history” or “culture”.
A dear Australian friend once admitted that he honestly couldn’t see the value of a culture that, as far as he could ascertain, had left little evidence of its existence. No magnificent constructions, no monstrous machines, no weighty tomes or great body of art. I wish I’d seen this presentation before I heard that rare unguarded comment. I might have been able to move beyond my disappointment and anger to explain it in a way he might just have understood.
[The presentation should be embedded above. If you can’t see it, click through to here]
Image via Wikipedia