Interview with Alexandra Aikhenvald about the race to record languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Feb 3 18:56:11 UTC 2004

Imagine how different politics would be if debates were conducted in
Tariana, an Amazonian language in which it is a grammatical error to
report something without saying how you found it out - as Alexandra
Aikhenvald tells us its speakers tell her. Tariana is in danger of dying.
With each such disappearance we risk losing insights into different ways
of thinking. Aikhenvald told Adrian Barnett about the race to record

Tell us about recording a dying language...

A student of mine found an old man who said, "Yes, I speak Bare" - an
Amazonian language that we thought was extinct. I checked that he knew the
few Bar words I knew, then I sat down and talked with him for two months.
Senhor Candelrio was a great man. He would tell hunting stories, and
stories about his life. His mother had been the only person he could speak
Bare with. After she died he kept it alive by talking to himself when he
was drunk. So the language had been almost literally pickled in alcohol
until I recorded it.  When I left we both said: "See you again". Six
months later I got news that he had died.

So Bare died with him?

A language doesn't fall over a precipice, it sort of slides into oblivion.
A few people know five Bare words here, 20 there. Some become
"rememberers", that is, they can proudly recite poems or stories at
length, but have no idea what they mean. At that stage all the concepts,
the elegance and the embodied world view have gone. You just have shards.
So functionally, yes, Bare is gone.

Isn't it dangerous, travelling to these remote places?

I suppose it is, but because I am a woman and alone, people trust me and I
can get information that would probably be impossible otherwise. I did
once have to run away from a drunken miner. But that was in a town. In the
more remote villages they like me, I have respect and I am safe. I have
also been adopted into families.

And the environment?

I have seen snakes. People think that if you go to these places you must
be some kind of Indiana Jones character but I am not. I grew up in a big
city. I can't swim. I can't even ride a bicycle.

That makes you sound braver still,canoeing on jungle rivers...

Maybe just lightheaded. I don't think about it. I can't possibly learn to
swim. But it's incredibly fascinating to discover a whole language. Of
course, when I come back I usually have some sort of infection or stomach
disease. But eventually I get better and then I want to go back.

How do you explain what you are doing?

When I was preparing a bilingual dictionary of Tariana - another Amazonian
language - and Portuguese I gave a workshop and about 300 people came. I
showed them this very poor, very old Tariana grammar book and explained
that I wanted to do a more truthful one - I said, "Your names will be on
it because it is a community book". And they said, "Oh yes, then we can
teach our children better. This old book has many mistakes. Our language
will be like Portuguese, it'll be a proper language."

And what does that mean to them?

In that area you are identified with your father's language, and if you
speak a borrowed language like Portuguese instead, you are a lesser
person. But with a dictionary they can say, "Now, I am learning my
father's language back" and this gives them some security and confidence.
They start to speak it with pride and not apologetically. I find that very

What happens then? You can hardly say to most people, "So, tell me about
your transitive verbs..."

I always do whatever the people in the village are doing. If I didn't join
in they would treat me differently. When I hear something interesting I
either ask a direct question or I get them to tell me stories. I ask
questions and people say, "Oh, how did you know that? OK, we will talk to
you more".

Once I asked, "Can I use this word this way?" and the response was, "Of
course, you're foreign, you can say a wrong thing. But I can't say that."

What's the most difficult language you've come across?

It took me 10 years to get the grammar of Tariana. Of course, Finnish is
probably harder.

How did you become fascinated by languages?

I grew up in Moscow, in what was supposed to be a monolingual society, but
in the street I'd hear all sorts of different accents and speech patterns.

Then we used to go to Estonia for our summer holidays. If you spoke
Russian to an Estonian they ignored you but if you learned some Estonian
they were very nice. Also my great-uncles and great-aunts were Jewish,
educated people originally from Ukraine, and I was intrigued by the
consistent language mistakes they made.

And at school?

When I was 11 and I was rebelling, I collected the phrase "I don't want to
go to school" in as many languages as I could find. I had it in 52.

What languages did you study formally?

At university I started on Balto-Finnic languages, as I already knew
Estonian. Then my supervisor said, "With your name, the authorities will
never let you be a mainstream scholar in the USSR". I should study
something obscure. I had a Jewish name and Russia was very anti-Semitic. I
looked around, became fascinated by Hittite and the Anatolian family of
languages, and that became my master's.

A colleague recommended Berber for my PhD. It was the classic colonial
situation: the French linguists had dismissed these languages as "just
dialects", so there were some 14 languages that no one was studying.

How did you get from north Africa to the Amazon?

Perestroika started, thankfully, and I saw this job in southern Brazil. I
got it, then found that many Brazilian linguists are extremely possessive
of "their" languages. But there is this huge Arawak language family,
spanning South America, whose members are as different from each other as
English is from German and are as different from members of other language
families as these are from Hungarian.

So few linguists study Arawak languages that you can just pick and choose.
I decided to go to the least explored part, which is where Brazil,
Venezuela and Colombia meet. I arrived at this tiny border town and within
a few days of just walking around I heard two languages that were supposed
to be extinct.

How do you reach the more remote groups?

I arrive in the town, some people will pick me up and we go upriver in one
of their canoes. I think they cooperate partly because I am not Brazilian.
There is a lot of institutionalised racism in Brazil and as a foreigner I
am seen as being outside that. It helps immensely. And these people are
trying to protect their cultural traditions and languages against
encroaching linguistic dominance - this international monolingualism.

Why is it important to preserve these languages?

First, to learn about how people communicate and how the human mind works.
What are the categories that are important enough for people to express
them in their languages?

If these so-called "exotic" languages die, we'll be left with just one
world view. This won't be very interesting, and we'll have lost a vast
amount of information about human nature and how people perceive the

Second, without their language and its structure, people are rootless. In
recording it you are also getting down the stories and folklore. If those
are lost a huge part of a people's history goes. These stories often have
a common root that speaks of a real event, not just a myth. For example,
every Amazonian society ever studied has a legend about a great flood.

What's your favourite example of a big difference between languages?

In English I can tell my son: "Today I talked to Adrian", and he won't
ask: "How do you know you talked to Adrian?" But in some languages,
including Tariana, you always have to put a little suffix onto your verb
saying how you know something - we call it "evidentiality". I would have
to say: "I talked to Adrian, non-visual," if we had talked on the phone.
And if my son told someone else, he would say: "She talked to Adrian,
visual, reported." In that language, if you don't say how you know things,
they think you are a liar.

This is a very nice and useful tool. Imagine if, in the argument about
weapons of mass destruction, people had had to say how they knew about
whatever they said. That would have saved us quite a lot of breath.

And what about different types of vocabulary?

The story about Inuit words for snow is completely wrong. That language
group uses multiple suffixes, so you can derive not 50, but 150 words for
snow. But the Tariana do have a lot of terms for ants. It is important to
know that some bite and others are edible, for instance.

Do languages hold any surprises for you?

I had been working with Tariana for nine years before I came across the
word for "purple". I was astounded. I did not realise there could be a
word for purple in a language that does not distinguish between green and

Such things get languages described as "primitive"...

There is no such thing as a primitive language. Many tribal people now
speak several languages. They can often learn English or Portuguese much
more easily than incomers can learn their language.

People complain about irregular verbs in Portuguese, but that's nothing
compared to the irregular verb structure in Navaho, for example. I've
known missionaries say, "These Indians, they are just making it up ad hoc.
They are just doing it to be difficult and to keep us out." Such people do
not appreciate the level of sophistication and complexity some of these
languages have reached.

How do you decide when to stop gathering information?

With Tariana I stopped when I was not finding any new verbs. There were
still more names for birds and ants. But I could not identify all of them
anyway. And there are so many languages to work on. A dictionary means
that the language is not completely lost and it empowers those who speak
the language to preserve their cultural identity. That's good.

How many languages have disappeared in the last century?

About 60 or 70 per cent of linguistic diversity in the north-western
region of Brazil has gone in the last 100 years. On the Atlantic coast of
Brazil it's worse - about 99 per cent - and around the world the figure is
60 to 70 per cent. It has been very rapid.

Is there a lost language that you would love to have spoken?

Oh, yes. So many, so many...

What language do you dream in?

If I dream of Tariana, they speak Tariana. Sometimes I dream of Estonia,
and they speak Estonian. In my nightmares, people speak to me and I
understand, but I can't answer...

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