A language kept alive on life support, literally

Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Sat Jan 19 18:56:09 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language --

A language kept alive on life support, literally.

82 year old Soma Devi Dura is the last speaker of Dura, the  
traditional language of the Dura people living in the Western Region  
of Nepal. Soma Devi is mostly deaf and blind. She doesn’t feel like  
talking much, and according to Nepali actuarial tables, she may not  
last long. So one linguist wants to put Dura and its last surviving  
speaker on life support.

As a boy, Kedar Bilash Nagila played with Dura children who had  
already lost their language. Now he’s a graduate student studying  
Dura, and he’s trying to take the last Dura speaker, who like many of  
the Dura is also named Dura, to the capital, Kathmandu, for medical  
treatment and a couple of hearing aids. Drugs should allow Soma Devi  
to hang on for a while. And with special audiological equipment she  
may be able to hear Nagila, who hopes she will add to the database of  
1,500 Dura words and 250 sentences that he has already compiled in  
his effort to make sure that Dura survives after she’s gone. . . .

Languages go extinct for a variety of reasons. All the speakers of a  
language could be wiped out in one catastrophic event – just like the  
meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. But in most cases, speakers give up  
one language for another, either voluntarily, because the other  
language proves more useful economically or socially, or under  
duress, because they’re forced to do so by someone more powerful. . . .

Preservationists argue that when a language dies, a little bit of the  
world’s culture dies with it. Yes, and every time a bell rings, an  
angel gets its wings. It’s true that every tongue has its own way of  
putting “what’s out there” into words, and studying the  
idiosyncrasies we find in the world’s languages gives us some insight  
into the nature of language and its relation to culture and the mind.  
But to give each language its own lock on reality suggests that we  
live in multiple separate universes and denies the possibility of  
translation, not to mention tourism or climbing very high mountains  
with the help of Sherpa guides.

Read the rest at the Web of Language


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


read the Web of Language:

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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