National Geographic : 2012 Jul
• is meant to preserve and converts the linguist from observer to activist. David Harrison and Greg Anderson compiled the rst Tuvan-English dictionary and are proud of the excitement the volume elicited from native speakers. Steve and Cathy Marlett worked until 2005 finishing a Cmiique Iitom dictionary begun by her parents in 1951. Steve remembers the day René Mon- taño asked, "Can I show you how I write?" and demonstrated a way of dividing words that had not occurred to the linguist before. e revela- tion meant revising years of work. But Marlett was delighted, because the project was enlisting native Seri speakers into diagnosing and de ning their own language. e cataloging of vocabulary and pronuncia- tion and syntax that eld linguists do in remote outposts helps keep a language alive. But saving a language is not something linguists can accom- plish, because salvation must come from within. e answer may lie in something Harrison and Anderson witnessed in Palizi one day, when a villager in his early 20s came with a friend to perform a song for them. Palizi is far removed from pervasive U.S. culture, so it was something of a surprise to the two linguists when the teen- agers launched into a full-bore, L.A.-style rap song complete with gang hand gestures and head bobbing and attitude, a pitch-perfect rendition of an American street art, with one re nement: ey were rapping in Aka. Were the linguists dismayed? I asked. To the contrary, Harrison said. " ese kids were uent in Hindi and English, but they chose to rap in a language they share with only a couple thousand people." Linguistic co-optation and absorption can work both ways, with the small language sometimes acting as the imperialist. " e one thing that's necessary for the revival of a lan- guage," Father D'Souza told me one day, "is pride." Against the erosion of language stands an ine able quality that can't be instilled from with- out: someone's insistence on rapping in Aka, on singing in Tuvan, on writing in the recently orthographized Cmiique Iitom. e Mosers' and Marletts' dictionary initiative has given birth to a new profession in Seriland: scribe. Several book- lets have been authored by Seris. e Marletts hope the number of volumes will reach 40, one threshold, it is believed, for enticing people to maintain literacy in a language (though some put the number much higher). The interest is already there. The Marletts had a regular visitor when they were living in El Desemboque, a young boy who would come each day to pore over a Cmiique Iitom booklet. One day he arrived, and the Marletts explained they'd lent it to someone else. "He just burst into uncontrollable tears," Steve remembers. e spread of global culture is unstoppable. Kyzyl, a capital city that never had a railroad con- nect it to the rest of Russia, will get one in the next few years. In El Desemboque power lines have been run through the desert to drive an electric pump for a municipal well. And in Arunachal Pradesh a new hydroelectric dam has been com- pleted, ensuring the village of Palizi better access to electricity, refrigeration, and television. To be involved in the plight of vanishing lan- guages, even just as a journalist, is to contemplate the fragility of tribal life. Since my visits over the past two years to Palizi and Kyzyl and Seriland, Efraín Estrella died of pancreatitis, and young Pario Nimasow, who unwrapped his father's sha- man's kit for me and wondered what its contents might mean, was killed in a landslide. A week a er I wrote the paragraph describing Armando Torres's daily singing, I received an email from Cathy Marlett. "Sad news," its subject line read. Torres had died of a heart attack at 67, in his place by the beach in El Desemboque. eir mortality is a reminder of the mortality of their cultures, an intimation that with each speaker's death another vital artery has been sev- ered. Against that---against the possibility that their language could slip away without alarm or notice---stands a proud perseverance, a rever- ence for the old, an awareness that in important ways a key to our future lies behind us. at, and an insistence that the tongues least spoken still have much to say. j n The Enduring Voices Project is funded in part by your National Geographic Society membership.