Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bord na Gaidhlig

The Herald reported a few months back on the resignation of Scotland's Bord na Gaidhlig chief of development, Kenneth Murray. The Bord na Gaidhlig is the Scottish cultural organ charged with the continued life of Gaelic, the native language of the area and on of a family of languages that includes Irish, Welsh, and several more minor – oh, how could they possibly be more minor? – continental tongues. It would be a taxing position for those deeply and fully committed to the language, never mind an outsider in the field as Murray apparently was.

Commissions such as these work to avoid the complete death of a given naturally learned language (learned from being spoken in the home) and to stop it from becoming an inactive language (meaning that it would be known, but only in the way that Latin is now known). According to UNESCO, ten languages die out every year, a recently-arrived-at and alarmingly high rate: 'Europe’s colonial conquests caused a sharp decline in linguistic diversity, eliminating at least 15 per cent of all languages spoken at the time. Over the last 300 years, Europe has lost a dozen, and Australia has only 20 left of the 250 spoken at the end of the 18th century. In Brazil, about 540 (three-quarters of the total) have died out since Portuguese colonization began in 1530.'

Is it a (write it!) disaster that these languages go extinct? Or maybe it is better to ask, what is the implication of their demise for the rest of humanity? There are those who would argue – I might be among them – that greater pluralities of languages allow for a greater variety of conceptions, that implicit in a language is the structure of a culture's conceptual thinking. More practically, we lose what there was of humanity contained in the texts of these languages: historical texts, myths, verse, and what might be called theosophy. This is why translation is so important.

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