Friday, October 10, 2008

guilt by (American) association

“A language is not just vocabulary and grammar...It’s a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of a culture comes into the material world.”

This quote from Wade Davis resonates with me right now as I think about my students and the words they use to talk about their lives. In the same interview where I saw this quote (found here ) Davis also mentions that more than half of the world's 6,000 languages are no longer actively spoken, and likely to become extinct during the current generation. What does this mean for the future of our planet and our cultural diversity? I've always felt of two minds whenever travelling somewhere different from my own world--I've been fascinated by what I encounter, by the exchange of stories and ideas, by the incredible commonalities in the human spirit that made me able to have a conversation with a woman on the side of the road in a desert in northern Kenya, despite the fact that neither of us knew the other's words. But along with that fascination and the desire to explore all that other cultures have to offer was the bleak knowledge that ours was an exchange, and I brought my own American image into the desert with me, and left behind an impression, and material goods, that contribute to the homogenization of globalized culture. I'm trying to reconcile how I feel about this.

I think a lot about language as a way to visualize the changes in world cultures; English is the result of merging of Anglo-Saxon and French, Latin and Old Norse, all these other languages that adapted over time. It's changing still, and we discard as many words a year as we add. If I don't feel too sad about losing the cadences of Elizabethan English, why should I feel sad when this merging happens on a worldwide scale?

I've developed a little academic crush on Wade Davis this month as I read his works on the concept of the Ethnosphere. He approaches the topic with a better grasp of globalization than I have right now, and a little less sentimentality... some of his thoughts can be found in this really interesting keynote speech for the Interinstitutional Consortium for Indigenous Knowledge

And his zombie book is good too.

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