Broadwell’s Burning Museum of Languages

In the course of his linguistic field work, George Aaron Broadwell has spent long stretches of time listening to speakers of endangered languages such as Zapotec and Choctaw. He unravels the delicate syntactical and aural threads that are the basis for which those lovely noises we humans make take on meaning. When a language becomes extinct (as happens every month or so) Professor Broadwell sees it in terms of a great library or museum burning down. Yes, life will go on, but something beautiful is lost forever. As the Chair for the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on Endangered Languages and Their Preservation, Professor Broadwell unites linguists around the world in the battle against such losses. He is also the Director for The Institute for Mesoamerican Studies and a professor of linguistics in the Anthropology Department at University at Albany, SUNY where he spoke to Jen Banbury.


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conduit: I tend to think of native

languages as having such a strong precision of articulation when it comes to the natural world. Whereas English feels like more of a commerce-driven language. Do those differences reflect what's happening in the world?

broadwell: I think, partly, that's true. On the other hand there is a widespread myth that Native Americans are, or were, closely in touch with nature, intimately involved with the ecology, and responsible stewards of their local ecologies. In some cases that's true, in some cases that's not. As I said, there were originally hundreds of Native American languages and tribes on the continent and they had many different approaches to nature and their environment and the way they interacted with it. So, to some extent in Native languages of North America you often find rich vocabularies for referring to native species, but in some ways that reflects the fact that people had to be closely attuned to the environment in order to make a living. They had to be able to find edible food, know what animals they could hunt, things like that. So these languages often do closely reflect aspects of the local environment. I'm not sure if you could say as a general rule they reflect a reverence for nature. In some cases they do and in other cases there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence for that. It's sort of like English. Some speakers of English have a reverence for nature and some don't. But the language as a whole is sort of neutral on this.

conduit: Do you believe it's possible for a culture to survive once the language is gone?

broadwell: It's certainly possible for the culture to continue without the language. That's happening a lot in North America as the languages are becoming extinct. There are many tribes where there is almost no one who speaks the language anymore. I was just reading a grant proposal from the Lenape Nation of Oklahoma, (they are also called Delaware). At this point, there is one man who is ninety-eight years old who speaks the language and he's the last speaker of it. They are trying to put together a proposal to document the language, try to preserve it and pass some aspects of it onto future generations. So there's the case where there's still a Delaware culture, a Lenape culture—there's still a Lenape tribe—and they still have many aspects of their traditional culture that they want to pass along to their children even though the language is gone. So it is possible for the culture to survive the loss of the language, but the loss of the language is a severe blow. In almost any culture, many aspects of the culture are intimately tied in with the language. For example, in order to hold certain ceremonies among the Lenape, it would be appropriate to offer various kinds of prayers in the Lenape language. And if no one speaks that language, then it's not really possible to carry out that ritual in the correct way. So it's a tough issue. Almost all of the tribes in North America who are facing some language loss now have come to some realization of how important their languages were—how important their languages are. It's a funny thing, though, that in many cases people don't really seem to hold their languages in much value, they don't think it's very important, until they start to see that there's no one left who can speak the language.