Friday, January 11, 2008

Endangered Language

A still from last year's documentary Helvetica, about the 50th anniversary of that typeface. This ubiquitous font is most definitely NOT an endangered species.

In my last post I wrote about the depression and the loss that can effect someone when their landscape is dramatically altered. I focused on the physical aspects of community and culture—like buildings and environment. This got me thinking about the other components of a person's culture, the less concrete elements that make a place feel distinctive.

UNESCO (United Nation's Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization) tracks endangered places around the globe. Their World Heritage Site designation is one of the most valuable preservation tools for the built environment. UNESCO also tracks what they call "intangible cultural heritage" and in 2009 they plan to issue a "List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."

One of the things they track is language. Over 50% of the world's 6000 languages are endangered. One language, on average, disappears every two weeks.

Why is this important? Because, as their website explains, "languages are vehicles of value systems and of cultural expressions and they constitute a determining factor in the identity of groups and individuals."

Here's another interesting fact: 90% of the world's languages are not represented on the Internet. So this thing that you are using right now, and that is so often touted for connecting our world, is also threatening, through its exclusion, the life of certain languages and the cultures they represent.

There was a lawsuit back in the '90's, filed by the National Federation for the Blind against AOL. The suit alleged discrimination because AOL's proprietary software did not work with the software used by the blind to read and vocalize websites. Because AOL was an industry leader, the suit was filed under the guidelines of the American's With Disabilities Act. The Internet was not accessible to a large populace of people who had a right to be a part of this new and growing form of community. They won and AOL had to re-engineer its software.

The battle for a language, in general, is less clear cut. There is no law being broken. It is simply another one of the unintended impacts of globalization. Just as companies merge and become monopolies, so, too, can cultures.

Someone once told me that to be truly fluent in a foreign language, you must be able to tell a joke and get a native speaker to laugh. What they were saying, really, is that to understand another person, we must be able to value his culture enough to understand nuance and nothing is more nuanced than humor. Just as losing indigenous plant life to global warming or historic buildings to the wrecking ball blunts our physical landscape, losing so much language means forfeiting a beautiful nuance to our world.