Monday, June 13, 2005


"…the groove between the upper lip and the septum…" a Eyak word, from the article "Last Words" by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 6, 2005

The language of the Eyak, an Alaskan Indian tribe, is now only understood by a handful of people. Faeroese is spoken by about fifty thousand inhabitants of the Faeroe Islands, located Northwest of Scotland. There are many other languages and cultures that are slowly fading from the earth.

This is a darker side of globalization. As a parallel to extinction, the analogy is perfect. In effect, languages can be thought of as an organism, reproducing, mutating, interbreeding, and eventually dying. Well, who cares if a tongue is silenced? Why not let only the strong survive, and forget the rest?

Well, when it comes to language, which is a form of thought, we need all the help we can get. The danger of one-mode thinking has been proven over and over throughout history. We need the little things, the ideas that can only be expressed in a certain way, to give our existence vitality and substance. About a year ago I had a series of correspondence with a young 'Libertarian' from Iceland. He was definitely for unfettered commerce and the end of any government subsidy of art, culture or the humanities. He was particularly enraged that Iceland had a state-supported National Theatre, and as proof of the viability of free enterprise, listed a group of concerts by international pop musicians that had taken place recently in Reykjavík. The groups all performed in English. I had been to the National Theatre a few months before, and was mesmerized by the performance- in Íslenzk! A world class production done in a country with about the same population as my county. Without the subsidies, there might still be theatre there, probably road shows and probably in English. Within a few generations, another culture would be extinct (there was concern about this in Iceland after World War II, when American broadcasting from the military base in Keflavík threatened the social order).

So, what am I getting at? I don't know, except that diversity is not a bad word in my vocabulary. It is what makes life interesting, it renews our spirit and gives added meaning to the things already in our lives. We can let it flourish, if we remain aware that it is as fragile as an endangered species, and give it a little protection and cultivation.

By Professor Batty


Blogger Alda said...

I'm so glad you like the National Theatre. It's a place very close to my heart: my father is head producer there and my grandfather was the accountant for many years before he died. I spent a lot of time there as a child. I agree that Iceland's cultural life is something that needs to be supported. It certainly wouldn't do well on its own with a population this tiny - in fact no culture thrives well when the main concern is the bottom line.

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