Monday, November 29, 2010

Linguistic hotspots in the Arctic

The great blog Languagehat pointed me to this interview in the "Johnson" column of the Economist with linguist K. David Harrison. Just a snip: ...Johnson: Talking about language and local ecology, you say losing one entails losing the other. If most things are translatable, is it possible to keep the knowledge but not the language?

Mr Harrison: It's possible, but not likely, and it's not the usual case we see everywhere from the Arctic to Amazonia. In indigenous cultures we observe the decline of languages and lifeways occurring in parallel. There's an astonishing book called "Watching Ice and Weather Our Way," co-authored by Yupik elders and scientists. In it, the Yupik elders describe, define and draw sketches of 99 distinct types of sea ice formations which their language gives specific names to.

Their climate science astounds with its precision, predictive power, and depth of observation. Modern climate scientists have much to learn from it. As the Arctic ice melts, and new technologies like snowmobiles advance, Yupik ice-watching becomes the passion of the elderly few. Their knowledge of ice, their words for it, and the hunting skills and lifeways are all receding in tandem with the Yupik language itself....

A fish mask of the Yupik people, Yukon/Kuskokwim region (Alaska), early 20th century. From the collection of Andre Breton, now in the Louvre

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