Can You Hear Me Now? The 'Last Speakers' Dilemma

The author and two interviewees from The Last Speakers

People, places, and languages of our recent past are replaced by strip malls where Chinese porn store and Indian restaurant owners speak fluid Spanish, and Ethiopian-slash-Italian restaurants thrive next to Honduran and Venezuelan hot spots.

The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages

Publisher: National Geographic Society
Length: 304 pages
Author: K. David Harrison
Price: $27.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-09

I have called Houston my home for nearly 15 productive years, now. For that entire time, I have imagined it as a Third World nation that sits near the refinery-coughing edge of East Texas like a terminus ringed by superhighways of languages.

At the beginning of this decade, I taught dual credit college English at a high school in the Alief District, one of the most statistically diverse neighborhoods in America, where the small uneasy sea of faces in my classroom were an almost even blend of immigrants from India and Pakistan, Nigeria, Vietnam, Russia, and homegrown ghettos, barrios, and bayous. The parents of my students left Saigon in bullet-ridden helicopters, stowed away on boats after their family was hacked to death by machete-wielding men on the West Coast of Africa, or watched bodies hang from trees during school commutes in El Salvador. They were the wounded, the cast-offs, the exiled, and the survivors, all exuding a persistence that made me envious. They clung to the American dream of enterprise and education with vice-like grips. Yet, all were coping with assimilation and acculturation too -- the all-consuming vortex of the American melting pot that was eradicating their cultural traditions one network TV show, microwave dinner, and Black Eyed Peas song at a time.

Texas has always been a meeting ground of cultures since the beleaguered and haggard conqueror Cabeza de Vaca washed up south of Galveston half-dead, where he encountered tribes such as the Mariame, Yguase, and Quevene. Today, most Indian traces in Texas have been unjustly eradicated from this behemoth state, relegated to a few parks such as Caddo Mounds, the Alabama-Coushatta reservation in the piney woods, a casino in El Paso, and mysterious maps of our painful past. Those people, places, and likely the language, have slipped from our collective memory, replaced by strip malls where Chinese porn store and Indian restaurant owners speak fluid Spanish, and Ethiopian-slash-Italian restaurants thrive next to Honduran and Venezuelan hot spots. The intermingled zone of colonial Texas, which flew the flags of France, Spain, and Mexico, has been replaced by the information age city of a thousand newcomers seeking each other through Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter.

I often wonder about my own family’s rapid acceleration towards becoming Americanized, losing their last traces of Europe. Both sides are German in origin, and I have visited the fatherland twice, crisscrossing the country by train and van, where green fields, sloppy beer, and the sometimes steely but cordial reserve of people made me feel at home. My family left Alsace Lorraine, the often contested territory between France and Germany, and geared-up for their transatlantic crossing in the port of Rotterdam in the 1730s. After digging their heels into Pennsylvania, they finally wormed their way decades later into the frontier of Ohio, where they settled the Upper Sandusky, fought in the Civil War, and opened a dry goods store.

My wife’s family, tribal members of the Absentee Shawnee nation, were uprooted from the Carolinas, given land in Oklahoma, became Okies fleeing the dust bowl, and ended up in the heart of Houston driving Cadillacs. Somewhere along both of those family trees, we lost most sense of our past. She has nothing but a sepia photograph of her great-great grandmother, a medicine woman, and I have a handheld mirror, a German chocolate cake recipe (which I can’t eat due to allergies), and Protestant soberness and stubbornness. Effectively, we became blank slates: America was imprinted upon us.

The Last Speakers by K. David Harrison is a profound book that attempts to trace how indigenous people across the globe are trying not to fall victim to such onslaughts to their own ways of life, whether that means defending their land and/or language. Part memoir of a linguist, travelogue, theoretical decree, news brief, PBS companion book to the Sundance film The Linguists, and cry-for-help, the book attempts to survey a small portion of everyday people defending cultural autonomy and traditions in a time when both the old factors, like colonialism and the encroachment of heavy industry, and the plastic ‘soft technology’ era, led by companies like Microsoft and Google maps, are turning even the most remote corners of Earth into just another Wikipedia entry. At the same time, people have become backyard preservationists, resistance leaders, and caretakers of their cultural heritage. They defend their distinct knowledge, subsumed in a rich linguistic terrain, and their gestalt of a world that often eludes Westerners.

The old-fashioned academic methods are not enough, Harrison argues, for audio tapes, dusty file cards, and even digital video are like cataloguers of dead things, whereas language should be preserved as a living, nuanced, and evolving code that connects users to a meaningful and distinct cosmos. From Indian mountain villages where local language is embedded into hip-hop to school chatter in Arizona where Hopi tribal members preserve their dialect, language usage symbolizes the front lines of an endless battle for agency and autonomy. By recognizing the consequences of inaction, readers might become more aware of what we have learned, should learn, and could learn, if we “buoy…languages to new heights.”

In Walt Whitman’s prescient poem “When I Hear the Learned Astronomer,” (1865) the narrator tires quickly of the lecture hall, with its droning talk of ‘proofs …figures … charts … diagrams,” and chooses to “glide” out in the “moist night-air,” where he is mesmerized by the stars clinging to the silent sky. To me, Harrison is that kind of man. He tires of the drills and pedantics of university life, whether that means wrestling with the theories of linguist-by-trade Noam Chomsky or debating chameleon morphemes, with their suffixes and vowel harmonies. For linguists, such pastimes offer a wonderful examination of the in-and-outs of their particular field; most readers of this book (well, me), however, can barely eek out the vexing grammar and syntactical rules of English, so we are likely more enthused by Harrison’s Siberian stays with a Mongush herding clan that brims with numerous words for dung, animal domestication songs, and homemade sign language; treks to Mongolia, where he stays among the nomadic Monchaks, learning food protocol; tales of the immense pharmacology, including uses of poppy and anise, of the Kallawaya living in Bolivia’s highlands, which could be easily “bio-prospected” like a landmine, in which accumulated cultural knowledge shaped by thousand of years may be swept away by pharmaceutical companies who craft a patent for medical uses that benefits modern consumers but may yield little, or no profit, to those people whose knowledge was tapped.

Equally so, his examination of language hot spots (a region is hot if local languages are threatened, warm if those languages are maintained, even thriving and relatively unharmed) is pertinent, as well. They relate to notions of ecology, biodiversity, and the health of ‘hidden languages’ that offer descriptions of future biomedical potentials, and thriving local culturally context, of the supposed 83 percent of plant and animal species yet to be discovered and catalogued. That figure alone is staggering, especially since satellites are circling the globe like sponges sucking in information, Google books is trying to digitize every known publication, and Mapquest is slowly eradicating the dark spots on maps.

For a case study, Harrison offers up his expedition to aboriginal Australia. These inhabitants typify a misunderstand, denigrated, and ancient civilization that offers key insights – via their own mythology, cultural practices, and steady adaptation to harsh environments – that reveal deep and indelible knowledge about species like the kapok tree, whose bloom signals the time to collect crocodile eggs. This is a way of life not confined to a classroom and Whitman’s dreary lecture hall, it is an understanding culled from being “on country,” as a Gugu-Yaway clansman exhorts, in which knowledge is kinetic – seen and felt by movement through a landscape and harnessed by language. Along the way, the fieldworkers explore other rituals as well, like being anointed by river water while elder tribal members of the “swamp, sun, and cloud people” sing boisterously.

In some cases, such as the Mapuche in Chile, the right to defend one’s language is every bit as vital as protecting any other natural resource, especially in the face of titans like Microsoft attempting to create a Windows interface in the tribal language. In an eloquently crafted response, the tribe maintains that such attempts are essentially a form of appropriation that violates their right to maintain and protect their own cultural heritage. Like UNESCO attempts to preserve biospheres, the Mapuche try to preserve the language that renders such ecosystems meaningful to inhabitants.

While broadly attacked by critics arguing for an open-society, free speech, and progress, the native spokespeople echo eloquent Native American voices of the 19th century, who also fervidly battled encroachment. Up against so-called progress and Manifest Destiny, they sought to preserve not solely land but an entire way of life – a system of different gestalts, symbol systems, and cosmology that was often at odds with Western civilization. In short, a mountain may be understood as the land of origins of the Kiowa people – a nexus of spirits and heritage – that writer N. Scott Momaday explored, or it can be considered just another potential commercial property prepped for suburbs, bike paths, ski runs, and tram-lines. Indeed, some tribes choose "language sharing” and do not mind how the language becomes mediated, as long as it is preserved and respected, while others choose “language secrecy” that still taps technology, like the creation of language databases, but they are still wary of outsiders who might not share their same interests, background, or moral compass. They seek to protect the mountain, both territorially and linguistically.

In all, The Last Speakers is a book that does not revel in arcane academia. Anecdotal and inquisitive, learned and limber, Harrison scripts postcards from both the edge and center of the information society, where rampant consumerism and post-colonialism coincide uneasily with a world of cultural preservation, activism, and outreach emanating from people unwilling to see cultural practices and languages suffer our shortcomings.

The narrative does not evoke simple alarmism, either, for it tracks success in equal measure to the challenges. We are living in times that need not spell disaster for the environment nor to communities. If people listen hard enough, and long enough, and attempt to bridge worlds -- not at odds with each other but in joint efforts that recognize differences and balance them fairly and respectfully -- there need be no last speakers, no knowledge lost forever, and no forestalled discoveries. Each person can become a kind of ethnographer, a cultural conduit tapping the traits of proactive listening. In doing so, people may ceaselessly muse, venture, and seek “the spheres, to connect them,” as Whitman once cajoled.

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