Vanishing Languages

There’s a Turkish saying: Bir lisan, bir insan; iki lisan iki insan : “One language, one person; two languages, two people”. The essence of it is, a language embodies the culture of a people. When you learn their language, you absorb unique aspects of their culture – and add another dimension to your own personality. I can vouch for the truth of this. There are words in Turkish that require an English sentence to explain; phrases used in everyday social interaction that have no English equivalent; and ideas I can discuss comfortably in Turkish that would raise quizzical eyebrows back in New Zealand.

Unesco language day posterIt’s a sad thing, then, when a language disappears. Something irretrievable is lost from the sum of human experience. 21 February is recognised globally as International Mother Language Day. In her message to mark the occasion this year, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, noted that, Every two weeks, one of the world’s languages disappears, and with it goes part of our human history and cultural heritage”.

According to the UNESCO’s most recent report, 6,700 languages are spoken in the world, of which 2,500 are considered to be in danger of extinction. I was surprised and a little shocked to learn that fifteen of these are in Turkey. One news source provided details:

“Four languages in Turkey were categorised as unsafe: Zazaki, Abkhaz, Adyge, and Kabard-Cherkes. Definitely endangered are: Abaza, Homshetsma, Laz, Pontus Greek, Romani, Suret (a language similar to Assyrian) and Western Armenian. Three languages are severely endangered: Gagavuz, a language spoken mostly in Moldova and by a diaspora in Turkey, Assyrian and Ladino, the language spoken by the Sephardic Jewish community in Turkey. One more language is critically endangered: Hértevin, a language that used to be spoken in the province of Siirt in the southeast of Turkey. In 1999, there were 1,000 speakers left.

The UNESCO Atlas says that three languages have become extinct in Turkey. Cappadocian Greek is extinct in Turkey and critically endangered worldwide. A language called Mlahso, which was spoken in the Lice district of Diyarbakır became extinct when its last speaker died in 1995. A language called Ubykh was lost with the death of its last registered speaker in 1992.”

Well, I guess, with 6,700 documented languages, you’d expect there’d be a few you hadn’t heard of. No doubt there are some tragic stories behind the circumstances native speakers of those languages find themselves in. Christian communities were in an intolerable situation after the failed Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919, and the result was a population exchange with Muslims from Greece. Syrian Christians get less publicity, but they suffered as a result of imperialist struggles in the Middle East. Armenians get plenty of media attention, so it’s interesting that theirs is not one of the extinct languages, nor even one of the fifteen considered in danger.

Çerkezler14 March probably passed unnoticed by most of us, but the Circassian community in Turkey held events on that day to draw attention to the threat facing their languages, four of which are mentioned above: Abkhaz, Adyge, Kabard-Cherkez and Ubykh. Two months later, on 21 May, they will commemorate the event that made them “one of the first stateless peoples in modern history”, the Circassian Genocide. I’m quoting the blurb of a book on the subject:

“Circassia was a small independent nation on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea. For no reason other than ethnic hatred, over the course of hundreds of raids the Russians drove the Circassians from their homeland and deported them to the Ottoman Empire. At least 600,000 people lost their lives to massacre, starvation, and the elements while hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homeland. By 1864, three-fourths of the population was annihilated”.

Most of those refugees, in a tragic precursor of current events in Syria, found their way across the Black Sea to the coast of Anatolia, where the Ottoman government and people did their best to provide shelter and a new home.

The Muslim people of Turkey tend to get a bad press in the “Christian” West – somewhat unjustified given their willingness, over centuries, to grant refuge to the human flotsam cast adrift by neighbours and other heartless regimes further afield.

Another language on that list, in the “severely endangered” category, is Ladino – as the report said, “the language spoken by the Sephardic Jewish community in Turkey”. Sephardic Jews, as distinct from the better-known Ashkenazi, are descendants of people who fled from the Iberian Peninsula, modern Spain and Portugal, when Roman Catholic armies achieved ascendancy over Muslim rulers who had entered from North Africa in the 8th century.

According to Wikipedia, “During the Islamic administration, Christians and Jews were allowed to retain their religions by paying a tax (jizya).

“The new Christian hierarchy demanded heavy taxes from non-Christians and gave them [limited] rights . . . On July 30, 1492, all the Jewish community — some 200,000 people — were forcibly expelled. The very next year . . . the Muslim population of Granada was forced to convert or be expelled.

Bayezid-i.Veli_.Han_

Bayezit II – ruled 1481-1512

Sultan of the Ottoman Empire at that time was Bayezit II, son of Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople 40 years earlier. Bayezit’s main claim to historical fame is that he dispatched the Ottoman Navy to Spain to evacuate the unwanted Jewish community and have them resettled in his own dominions. He sent out proclamations throughout the empire that the refugees were to be welcomed, and is reputed to have declared, “You venture to call Ferdinand [King of Aragon] a wise ruler – he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!”

“The Muslims and Jews of al-Andalus (Iberia) contributed much to the rising power of the Ottoman Empire by introducing new ideas, methods and craftsmanship. The first printing press in Constantinople was established by the Sephardic Jews in 1493. It is reported that under Bayezid’s reign, Jews enjoyed a period of cultural flourishing.”

I recently came across an article in our Turkish daily featuring an interview with Karen Şarhon, a retired English teacher living in Istanbul. She spoke of a being member of the last generation in Turkey to speak Ladino, the language brought from Spain 500 years ago which has kept alive the culture and traditions of that refugee community. The next generation, including Ms Şarhon’s 21-year-old daughter, show little interest in learning the language.

There is, however, increasing interest in Ladino music, which may help to keep the traditions alive. Perhaps its best-known performer is Yasmin Levy, a singer currently residing in Israel, whose father was born in 1919 in Izmir, Turkey.

Interestingly, in 2015, the governments of Spain and Portugal passed “laws to facilitate the return of the descendants of the thousands of Jews who were forced from the countries at the end of the 15th century.” Which is very nice, if a little overdue – but you might have thought they could have done so without criticising Turkish people, whose assistance and hospitality over the centuries ensured there was actually a language and a culture to save.

Just why Turkey needs to be singled out for special attention as a country where languages are under threat of extinction strikes me as a little strange.

According to encyclopedia.com, the Western Hemisphere [ie the Americas] at the time of the first European contact [that, of course, was Christopher Columbus, sponsored by that same King Ferdinand in 1492!] was inhabited by 40 million people who spoke 1,800 different tongues.”  How many of those languages, I wonder, are extinct or under serious threat?

The Australian Government recognises that there were 250 language groups spoken by the aboriginal inhabitants when “European settlement”, ie English convict colonies, were first established in 1788. See my previous question.

The original languages of the British Isles were the Celtic group, including Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Manx and Cornish. According to gaelicmatters.com, “Welsh is the Celtic language with in the healthiest state. In Wales there has been a real and quite successful effort to restore the language. The number of speakers is actually increasing . . . Irish is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, but the working language for most things is English.” Scots Gaelic has been experiencing growing popularity in recent years and may yet survive English determination to wipe it out after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Cornish and Manx are, to all intents and purposes, extinct languages.

The Basque language, also called Euskara or Euskera, is the only remnant of the languages spoken in southwestern Europe before the region was Romanized in the 2nd through 1st century BCE. We are all aware of the difficulties the government of Spain has been experiencing with its rebellious Basque citizens, who don’t seem to excite the same feelings of sympathy in Europe as do Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

According to a New Zealand Government report, “In the 2013 Census, 21.3 percent of all Māori reported that they could hold a conversation in Māori about everyday things. This was a decrease from 23.7 percent in 2006 and 25.2 percent in 2001. Of the 148,400 people (or 3.7 percent of the total New Zealand population) who could hold a conversation in Māori in 2013, 84.5 percent identified as Māori.”

Charles & Di

Was the world a happier place in those days? The head boy of St Stephens School and the Princess both later killed in car accidents. So sad!

I remember hearing older people speaking Maori in the North Hokianga village of Broadwood back in the early 1970s. Ten years later, when I worked as a teacher in the subsequently closed St Stephens School for Maori boys, Māori was taught as a second language, but wasn’t seen by pupils as a very attractive option. I recall only one boy during my three years at Tipene coming from a home where Māori was spoken as a first language. He was from the Tuhoe tribe in the remote North Island Urewera region.

That government report attributes the marked decline of Māori language speakers over the last century, in the main, to “the rapid urbanisation of the Māori population in the 1950s and 1960s.” While there may be some truth in that, it is also true that the disastrous wars of the 1840s, 50s and 60s, and the resulting punitive land confiscations played an important part, as did the active discouragement of speaking Maori in schools and urban communities in the first half of the 20th century.

I have no intention of undervaluing the importance of assisting ethnic communities to preserve their endangered languages; nor of demeaning the admirable work of UNESCO in this field. All dominant cultures, however, must accept some responsibility for the current situation – and finger-pointing at selected scapegoats serves no useful purpose.

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6 thoughts on “Vanishing Languages

  1. How many of those languages, I wonder, are extinct or under serious threat? – Many Alan. But tribes are videotaping some elders to help keep their language and culture alive. I think this is the result of colonization, of course, worldwide.

    • Yes, Lara, there is greater widespread awareness these days of what is lost when a language disappears – and modern technology can at least preserve a record. Certainly colonisation was a major factor – but there was also a deliberate policy of suppression. In Turkey, in the past, Kurdish people were actively discouraged from using their own language, from identifying as Kurdish and from giving their children Kurdish names. Interestingly, it is the present much-maligned government that reversed those policies, and assists in the funding of Kurdish-language television – and Kurdish is not under threat of extinction in Turkey. These days you hear it spoken frequently in public places, and the Kurdish issue is discussed regularly on Turkish TV channels.

    • I visited your blog. Good work! It’s a commendable aim, learning the Basque language. It sounds as though we have some things in common despite a large age disparity (I’m sure). My wife is Turkish and I feel privileged to have had this opportunity to learn the language and gain insights into the world of a people greatly misrepresented and misunderstood in the West.
      My Turkish brother-in-law has written two books on the Basque situation in Spain, neither of which I guess, has been translated into English, so I’m providing my own translation of the titles: “Pluralist Spain” and “Basque Nationalism in the Political History of Spain”.

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