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by William H. Benson

February 19, 2009

     As Lewis and Clark traveled from tribe to tribe west across the North American continent, they remarked repeatedly on the differences among the languages of the Native American peoples. Some that they heard sounded “liquid and melodious,” and others were “harsh and guttural.” Scholars have since identified at least eight distinct language groups, fifty-three separate stocks, and between two and three hundred individual languages. And those are just the languages north of the Rio Grande.

     Grammars varied widely among these languages, and it is the grammar that makes a language so formidable. It is never simply a matter of learning a series of the other language’s words for their English equivalents. For example, a sentence in English—Suddenly, she heard someone give a yell from across the street.—would translate into the Mohawk language this way: Suddenly, by what you could hear, there, it beyond the street, the ear went to who just then made shouted back towards her.

     The best way to learn to think in a grammar as complex as that Mohawk sentence, is to grow up in it, learning it as an infant, toddler, and then as a child.

      Grammar, the underlying construction of a language, need not be so difficult. Consider Mandarin Chinese, a nearly “grammarless” language. Rudolf Flesch, a prominent English writing authority, wrote about Mandarin Chinese: “It has no inflections, no cases, no persons, no genders, no numbers, no degrees, no tenses, no voices, no moods, no infinitives, no participles, no gerunds, no irregular verbs, and no articles.” All words contain only a single syllable, and sentence construction is the usual order: subject, verb, object.

     Scholars now understand that the Chinese language once had the usual “arsenal of unpleasant grammar,” but that over several millennium, the Chinese people eliminated all that into a streamlined language, consisting of “standardized, prefabricated, functionally designed parts.”

     All Native American languages belong to a single language family, and Mandarin Chinese belongs to another, the Sino-Tibetan family. English, of the Indo-European family, originated in the Teutonic forests of Germany and was then transported across the English Channel to the British Isles where it ran headlong into Irish and Scottish Gaelic, as well as the Welsh, Cornish, and Breton languages.

     Approximately two billion people speak one of the Indo-European languages, including Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English, Dutch, German, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Bengali, Punjabi, Pashto, Kurdish, Persian, Greek, Armenian, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

     Of the 6000 spoken languages in the world today, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by some 873 million people. Spanish is the first language of choice for 322 million people, and English, in third place, has at least 309 million who claim it.

     Other languages, such as Garig-Ilgar, Mati Ke, and Gudanji, are three of the Aboriginal languages of northern and central Australia, and each have as few as ten living speakers.

     February 21 is the United Nations International Mother Language Day, a day to help raise awareness among all peoples of the distinct and enduring value of their language. Movements exist to save certain dying languages. There is one for Mohawk, another for Irish Gaelic, and a concerted effort in the United States is now under way to save Yiddish, a Germanic language of central Europe that used Hebrew characters and which was brutally swept aside after the Holocaust.

     “It has been said that once there is a revival movement for a language, the language is already dead.” There may be some truth to that, and yet there is tremendous value in each language that faces an uncertain death. Max Weinreich, a Yiddish scholar, fled his native Poland in 1939 when the Germans attacked his homeland, and once settled in the U.S., he opened his doors and began to teach Yiddish to American students, who were uninterested. When asked why he did this, he answered, “Because Yiddish has magic, it will outwit history.”