English | History | Citizenship

The woman whose death is the end of a world


Are we losing more than words? Linguists say the world’s minority languages are going through a mass extinction event. This may make communication easier. But what else is lost? Imagine looking at someone. Both of you want to speak but are afraid to start. This is called mamihlapinatapai, in the South American language of Yamana. Cristina Calderón, the last speaker of Yamana, died this year. Languages are disappearing faster than ever. Every two weeks, another falls silent. For the Yagan people, they have lost more than just words. As Calderón’s daughter says: “an important part of the cultural memory of our people is gone.” Many experts say language shapes how we think. Yamana tells us about the landscape, wildlife and culture of the region. And for many people, language is part of who they are. This is also about the future, says expert David Harrison. “No culture has a monopoly on human genius, and we never know where the next brilliant idea may come from.” Calderón’s children were the first generation to grow up speaking Spanish, in order to go to school and find work. And some people think we would be better with just one world language. According to the Bible, languages were created when God punished humans for building the Tower of Babel. Today, people use common languages for culture, business and politics. Experts have even designed universal languages, like Esperanto. English has more words than any other language, but it is not more advanced. Most native languages "have incredibly complex grammatical systems", says expert Mark Turin. Now it is a race against time to record these languages before the last speaker dies. There is no word for goodbye in Cherokee, only: “I will see you again.” With fewer than 2,000 speakers, it too is endangered. For some, its fate is inevitable. But others say these languages must survive. Are we losing more than words? Mother tongue Yes: Languages are worlds, they show something special about a culture and its people. Each language makes the world richer.

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