In “Our Language in Your Hands,” a series of three programs being aired on BBC radio, Yale anthropologist and linguist Mark Turin conducts a tour of endangered languages in three very different locales.
In the first program, broadcast on Dec. 3, Turin revisits Nepal, where he spent many years living and learning Thangmi, a language spoken by only a few thousand people in a mountainous region of eastern Nepal. He journeys back to the village where he had lived to present the people there with the recently published dictionary and grammar he wrote for their Tibeto-Burman language, which has no written form.
Along the journey, Turin introduces listeners to the linguistic and cultural landscape of Nepal and talks about what is at stake when a language vanishes. Nepali is the “lingua franca” of this Himalayan country, where more than 100 languages from four distinct families are still spoken. As Nepali gains currency, remoter languages and individual dialects naturally start to disappear, notes the Yale anthropologist. When children are taught in a language different from what is spoken at home, as was becoming the case in Nepal, they are at a significant educational disadvantage, argues Turin and other linguistic anthropologists he interviewed. Efforts are being made to reverse this trend, he notes.
According to Turin, there are words in Thangmi for which no equivalent exists in other languages, such as the name for a unique species of indigenous fruit, while others describe objects, feelings, and even parts of the human body that are not linguistically distinguished in other cultures — one Thangmi term he cites translates as “the side of the body up to the armpit, but no further.”
”There are now more trained linguists than there are languages on earth,” notes Turin, who makes a dramatic pitch for those efforts to “collect, protect, connect” the vanishing tongues of unique communities. “It takes years for a language to evolve. It can disappear in just a flash with the death of the last speaker,” he comments.
On Monday, Dec. 10, Turin takes BBC listeners to South Africa to explore that country’s 11 official languages. In the final episode of the series on Dec. 17, Turin reports on languages spoken by fewer and fewer people in arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the world, New York.