Stet by Ria Bacon

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

And you think YOU'VE got no one to talk to?

I attended a ceremony this morning with five language simultaneous interpreting. It was fun switching from one language to another, although I missed the punchline to the only joke of the day because I was on the Mandarin channel. I wonder if the interpreters are chosen for the quality of their voice - all five this morning had really warm voices. Another thing that I noticed was the lack of any umming and erring. It's not natural but it does sound very professional.

Do you know what the "big 5" UN languages are? I hear all of them every day, and quite a few others too. Yet when I start surfing for fun or research, English is so omnipresent that other language websites rarely come up without specific searching.

According to Mark Abley , English is "the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid, superficially friendly, and devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand."

Out of the 6 800 living languages spoken in the world, most will have disappeared by the turn of the century. The BBC article romanticized Abley's research in Australia:

Somewhere on the remote Timor Sea coast of north Australia lives Patrick Nudjulu, one of three remaining speakers of Mati Ke.

It is problem enough that one of the other speakers doesn't live nearby and speaks a slightly different dialect. But the 60-year-old Aborigine also has to cope with the fact the other speaker is his sister - who traditional culture has forbidden him from speaking to since puberty.

It's a tragi-comic image: a grumpy old man crouching on a rocky windswept shore, mumbling to himself in a language no one else understands, "and mother always liked you more".

Strangely, Mati Ke is not listed by the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), although there are plenty of other languages where only one single speaker remains. It seems a little insensitive when they write "One speaker. Elderly. Nearly extinct". But I guess they're referring to the language, not the speaker.

In the SIL FAQs they don't mention that their main activity is Bible translation, working together with Wycliffe International. I worked with SIL in Papua New Guinea when I was 19. For me it was a great way to visit remote villages and meet people so far removed from my own life experience. It didn't take me long to realize, however, that the angst-ridden Finnish missionary I was accompanying was far stranger than the locals. He would squat for hours in the timber frame of the half-built house in which he and his family would live for the next 20 years, rocking on his heels, clasping his hands and praying with the missionary right stuff: zeal. He reckoned it would take 20 years to complete his mission: to translate the Bible into the local language, even then only spoken by a few hundred people.

[more on this another time ...]