Say No More

P. Kerim Friedman kerim.list at
Sun Feb 29 19:17:22 UTC 2004


February 29, 2004

Say No More

Languages die the way many people do -- at home, in silence, attended  
by loved ones straining to make idle conversation.

  ''Did you sell any baskets?'' Gabriela Paterito asks her neighbor  
Francisco Arroyo in her vowelly Spanish. She's in her two-room shack in  
Puerto Eden, a tiny fishing village on Wellington Island in the  
Patagonia region of southern Chile. There is a long, long silence.  
She's a short woman, dense from some 70 years of life, but with a  
girl's head of beautiful black hair. In the room are Francisco and a  
few others, among the last six speakers of Kawesqar, the language  
native to these parts since the last ice age.

  Linguists now estimate that half of the more than 6,000 languages  
currently spoken in the world will become extinct by the end of this  
century. In reaction, there are numerous efforts to slow the die-off --  
from graduate students heading into the field to compile dictionaries;  
to charitable foundations devoted to the cause, like the Endangered  
Language Fund; to transnational agencies, some with melancholic names  
appropriate to the task, like the European Bureau for Lesser Used  
Languages. Chile started a modest program, not long after the ugly  
debates surrounding Christopher Columbus in 1992, to save Kawesqar  
(Ka-WES-kar) and Yaghan, the last two native languages of southern  
Chile. But how does one salvage an ailing language when the economic  
advantages of, say, Spanish are all around you? And is it possible to  
step inside a dying language to learn whether it can be saved and, more  
rudely, whether it should be?

  Gabriela crams another stick into her wood stove to keep us dry and  
warm. The rain is coming now like nails, as it does most days. The  
silence stretches out. You begin to feel it, like a cold draft. Three  
or four aching minutes of it. My boots need some examining.

  ''Canastos,'' mutters Francisco, repeating the Spanish word for  
baskets, his grunting tone suggesting a bad day. When languages die  
under the pressure of a dominant tongue like Spanish, there is a  
familiar path of retreat. The language will withdraw from the public  
sphere first, hiding out in the living rooms and kitchens of the  
fluent, where it becomes increasingly private and intimate and frail.  
Francisco takes a two-foot length of reedy grass and softens it by  
rubbing it against the stove. All around weaving begins -- the  
distinctive Kawesqar baskets, small with long grassy handles.

  ''It's been raining all day,'' Francisco adds, again in Spanish. Juan  
Carlos, who is 39 and my guide, motions me to give him a cigarette.  
Juan Carlos was born and grew up here but left at 15 for school. Now  
college-educated, he has devoted his life and work to helping the  
Kawesqar community. (He has just finished a documentary film about the  
Kawesqar.) He doesn't smoke, he told me, except here. For the last few  
days, smoking and enduring long silences have pretty much accounted for  
our social life. I haven't smoked seriously for 15 years. I'm blowing  
through two packs a day.

  Every window here frames a magnificent photo op. Outside Gabriela's is  
a curving line of shacks hugging the shore of a small bay, bright  
red-and-yellow fishing boats beached in front, and behind, a dramatic  
ascent of mountains capped in white -- gushing here and there with  
little snow-melt waterfalls. Full-spectrum rainbows break out so  
frequently that no one notices but me and the tourists. They, too, are  
visible out the window, all wearing their orange cruise-ship-issue rain  
slickers, their cameras aimed aloft. To get here, it's a three-day chug  
by boat through the cold, uninhabited island channels of Patagonia.  
Once a week, the tourists come. They have less than an hour onshore to  
feel the intensity of its remote beauty -- and maybe buy a native  
basket -- before motoring out to the anchored cruise ship and a night  
of pisco sours.

  ''A lot of rain,'' announces Juan Carlos. The fire crackles and  
hisses. The rain continues, staccato.

  ''Rain,'' Gabriela adds.

  I sit quietly, smoking my way through their Samuel Beckett dialogue.

  ''Not many baskets,'' Francisco says, offering his full report.

  I wonder if I should ask them to speak Kawesqar, but I don't want to  
intrude. I want to get a sense of when they naturally converse in their  
language. Later, Juan Carlos tells me that the elder Kawesqar feel  
awkward speaking their moribund language around me. It's a combination  
of embarrassment and a sense that they don't want to make me feel  
uncomfortable. As the rain pours down, I light up a cigarette. My very  
presence here to observe this thing, difficult to see, has made it  

  The Kawesqar are famous for their adaptation to this cold, rainy world  
of islands and channels. The first Europeans were stunned. The Kawesqar  
and the other natives of the region traveled in canoes, naked, oiled  
with blubber, occasionally wearing an animal skin. The men sat at the  
front and hunted sea lions with spears. The women paddled. The children  
stayed in the sanctuary between their parents, maintaining fire in a  
sand pit built in the middle of the canoe. Keeping fire going in a land  
of water was the most critical and singular adaptation of the Kawesqar.  
As a result, fire blazed continuously in canoes and at the occasional  
landfall. The first European explorers marveled at the sight of so much  
fire in a wet and cold climate, and the Spanish named the southernmost  
archipelago the land of fire, Tierra del Fuego.

  When Charles Darwin first encountered the Kawesqar and the Yaghans,  
years before he wrote ''The Origin of Species,'' he is said to have  
realized that man was just another animal cunningly adapting to local  
environmental conditions. But that contact and the centuries to follow  
diminished the Kawesqar, in the 20th century, to a few dozen  
individuals. In the 1930's, the remaining Kawesqar settled near a  
remote military installation -- Puerto Eden, now inhabited mostly by  
about 200 Chileans from the mainland who moved here to fish.

  The pathology of a dying language shifts to another stage once the  
language has retreated to the living room. You can almost hear it  
disappearing. There is Grandma, fluent in the old tongue. Her son might  
understand her, but he also learned Spanish and grew up in it. The  
grandchildren all learn Spanish exclusively and giggle at Grandma's  
funny chatter.

  In two generations, a healthy language -- even one with hundreds of  
thousands of speakers -- can collapse entirely, sometimes without  
anyone noticing. This process is happening everywhere. In North  
America, the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans who followed him  
whittled down the roughly 300 native languages to only about 170 in the  
20th century. According to Marianne Mithun, a linguist at the  
University of California at Santa Barbara, the recent evolution of  
English as a global language has taken an even greater toll. ''Only one  
of those 170 languages is not officially endangered today,'' Mithun  
said. ''Greenlandic Eskimo.''

  Without the revitalization of youth, a language can go from being  
alive to endangered (declining speakers among the young), then moribund  
(only elderly speakers left alive), then dead (the last known speaker  
dies) -- all linguistic terms of art. William Sutherland, the author of  
a study in Nature magazine last spring, compared the die-off to an  
environmental catastrophe. According to Sutherland, 438 languages are  
in the condition of Kawesqar, that is, with fewer than 50 speakers,  
making them ''critically endangered'' -- a category that in the animal  
world includes 182 birds and 180 mammals. Languages ''seem to follow  
the same patterns'' as animals, Sutherland told a reporter for  
Bloomberg News. ''Stability and isolation seem to breed abundance in  
the number of bird and animal species, and they do the same for  
languages.'' Conversely, the instability and homogenization of the  
global economy is creating a juggernaut of monoculture, threatening  
plants and animals. But, Sutherland makes clear, the one life form even  
more endangered is human culture.

  According to Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, authors of ''Vanishing  
Voices,'' the last time human language faced such a crisis of collapse  
was when we invented farming, around 8000 B.C., during the switch-over  
from highly mobile hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture. Then  
the multitude of idioms developed on the run cohered into language  
families, like Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Elamo-Dravidian. The  
difference this time is that with each language gone, we may also lose  
whatever knowledge and history were locked up in its stories and myths,  
along with the human consciousness embedded in its grammatical  
structure and vocabulary.

  One often hears the apocryphal story about the Inuit and their 40  
words for ''snow.'' True or not, it acknowledges the inherent human  
sense that each language, developed over a certain time and geography,  
is a revelation of what we call ''a sense of place.'' To let languages  
die out, en masse, is to permit the phrase ''terra incognita'' to creep  
back onto our environmental maps. One organization of linguists,  
biologists and anthropologists, known as Terralingua, is working to  
keep languages alive by highlighting what gets lost when they fade  
away. ''I remember when I was doing fieldwork in Mexico,'' said Luisa  
Maffi, Terralingua's president. She encountered a man whose native  
Mayan was already blurred with Mexican Spanish. He had traveled with  
his 2-year-old daughter to a health clinic because she was sick with  
serious diarrhea. ''He no longer knew the word for yakan k'ulub  
wamal,'' she said, using the Mayan term for a plant long known to cure  
the problem. ''It was probably growing in his backyard.''

  A handful of linguists dismiss salvage efforts like Terralingua's as  
futile exercises. They say languages just die, as spoken Latin did, and  
then are reborn as French, Spanish and Italian. No big deal. Or more  
bluntly, all this sentimentality about dying languages is just another  
symptom of academe's mewling, politically correct minority-mongering.  
In the magazine Prospect, the writer Kenan Malik summarized this  
position in an essay titled ''Let Them Die.'' ''There is nothing noble  
or authentic about local ways of life; they are often simply degrading  
and backbreaking,'' Malik argued. ''What if half the world's languages  
are on the verge of extinction? Let them die in peace.''

  Linguists counter that yes, there is a natural process of language  
death; but the order of magnitude of the current die-off is what should  
create concern. What's happening with human culture now, they say,  
should shock people the way the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969  
radically changed how many thought about the environment.

  To general linguists, the dismissive position is just deliberate  
ignorance. But they also argue that the utilitarian case is too narrow.  
In peril is not just knowledge but also the importance of diversity and  
the beauty of grammar. They will tell you that every language has its  
own unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews. For  
example, because of the Kawesqar's nomadic past, they rarely use the  
future tense; given the contingency of moving constantly by canoe, it  
was all but unnecessary. The past tense, however, has fine gradations.  
You can say, ''A bird flew by.'' And by the use of different tenses,  
you can mean a few seconds ago, a few days ago, a time so long ago that  
you were not the original observer of the bird (but you know the  
observer yourself) and, finally, a mythological past, a tense the  
Kawesqar use to suggest that the story is so old that it no longer  
possesses fresh descriptive truth but rather that other truth which  
emerges from stories that retain their narrative power despite constant  

  ''There was once a man and a woman who killed a sacred deer,''  
Gabriela began, translating into Spanish a Kawesqar tale told in the  
mythological tense. ''Afterward a great flood came. The waters rose  
until they were standing in it up to their waist. Everyone died but the  
man and the woman.'' Then, in time, she went on, from just these last  
two Kawesqar, they figured out a way to endure, repopulate the land and  
revive the life of the Kawesqar among the channel islands.

  Outside, the rain kept coming down.

  The rhythm of Puerto Eden became easier after a few days. The  
fishermen headed out in the morning, and the rest of us made social  
calls. In time, I got to hear some actual Kawesqar spoken, and it  
sounded a lot like Hollywood's generic Apache, but with a few unique  
and impossible sounds. I learned to say ''Æs ktæl sa Jack, akuókat  
cáuks ktæl?'' (''My name is Jack, what's yours?'') That second word,  
ktæl, means ''name'' and is (sort of) pronounced ka-tull. It happens  
entirely in the back of the mouth, in a really challenging way. But  
during these visits, always and constantly, dominant-culture television  
hollered at us from a corner. Besides meeting the Kawesqar in Puerto  
Eden, I have to say, I caught up on a lot of missed episodes of  
''MacGyver'' and ''Baywatch.''

  Later in the week, Juan Carlos and I spent more time at his sister's  
house, and there the evidence of European culture insinuating itself  
deeply into the minds and habits of the Kawesqar was everywhere.

  Maria Isabel is a few years older than her brother. She was sick as a  
child and was raised in Punta Arenas, on the Chilean mainland. She  
studied and lived in metropolitan Santiago. She never had a Kawesqar  
youth and can't speak the language.

  ''I am Kawesqar,'' she told me in Spanish, as if to acknowledge the  
inexplicable tug identity has on all of us. When I asked her if she  
intended to learn her mother's language, she insisted that she would.  
''I hope next year,'' she said, unconvincingly.

  I spent a lot of time with Maria Isabel because her husband, Luis, was  
installing their first flushable toilet. When we weren't talking about  
Kawes-qar, we were measuring holes, figuring out how to run a sewer  
pipe into the bay and reading the toilet-assembly instructions  
(helpfully printed in five dominant languages). Eventually, the hole  
was properly centered, so we set down the beeswax ring, lifted the  
porcelain carefully and pressed it into its permanent location.

  Does anything say Western dominance quite like the flush of a private  

  Well, maybe one other thing. In our intimate chats and smokes, Juan  
Carlos told me about his own three children. He lives with them back on  
the mainland, in a house where two other adults speak some Kawesqar.  
One is Juan Carlos's brother, Jose, a professor of anthropology at the  
Universidad Arcis Magallanes in Punta Arenas. And the other is Oscar  
Aguilera, a linguist at the university. He's of Spanish descent, but he  
has devoted his life's work to the language of the Kawesqar.

  Aguilera arrived in Puerto Eden from Santiago in 1975 with the simple  
intention of ''describing'' the language as a linguist. There he met a  
people nearly cut off from the outside world. Among the little contact  
they'd had, oddly, was with NASA. The space agency came to the village  
in 1959 to conduct experiments on the ability of humans to withstand  
extremely cold temperatures. An elderly villager told Aguilera that the  
NASA scientists asked one Kawesqar man to sit naked in a cold tent with  
his feet in a bucket of water. He fled in the middle of the night.

  Aguilera befriended Gabriela's in-laws and knew Gabriela's husband  
well. He got to know her two young boys, and when they were teenagers,  
Aguilera took them to Santiago, where they finished school and went to  
college. Now they all live together in Punta Arenas with Juan Carlos's  
three young children, who use the affectionate term for ''grandfather''  
with Aguilera.

  When I visited the home for dinner one night, the three children ran  
up to greet me. They attend the local British school -- and so were  
taught in Spanish and English. One little girl proudly read me last  
night's homework: ''I played in the yard,'' and ''I rode my bicycle.''  
She beamed. It's cool speaking the dominant language.

  Later, I asked Juan Carlos why they didn't speak Kawesqar at home.  
Wouldn't it make sense, since the children were at that magic  
language-acquisition stage of youth?

  ''We are going to teach them later,'' he said. Juan Carlos added that  
they needed the proper books. Of course, Aguilera is the man who  
compiled the grammar and teaching manual for Kawesqar and is working on  
a dictionary with Jose. But government funds for these projects are  
spotty, and Aguilera admits it will be years before they are completed.

  Their answers revealed just how difficult language resurrection is.  
Learning a language, even your mother's, requires enormous motivation.  
Plus, Juan Carlos and Jose say they are ''semi-speakers'' -- in part  
because they were taken away from home so young to be educated in  
Spanish-dominated schools. Even the fluent Kawesqar speakers in Puerto  
Eden have occasionally asked Aguilera, the lexicographer, to remind  
them of a certain word.

  ''Some days,'' Aguilera told me when we were alone for a while, ''I  
think that I might be the last speaker of Kawesqar.''

  Among linguists, the sorrowful story of the ''last speaker'' is  
practically a literary genre. The names ring out, like a Homeric  
catalog. Ned Maddrell, the last speaker of Manx, died in the village of  
Cregneash on the Isle of Man in 1974. Tevfik Esenc, the last speaker of  
Ubykh, died in Turkey in 1992. Red Thunder Cloud, the last speaker of  
Catawba, died in 1996. More are coming. Marie Smith-Jones in Alaska,  
the last speaker of Eyak, is 83 years old.

  Farther south from the Kawesqar, I learned, lived the last speaker of  
Yaghan. Many people urged me to visit Puerto Williams and its native  
settlement, called Ukika, because of that intriguing notion -- that all  
of Yaghan now dwells entirely in the mind of one elderly woman,  
Cristina Calderón.

  Right away, though, I discovered that the ''last speaker'' of Yaghan  
is accustomed to charging passengers from the cruise ship that arrives  
each week for the privilege of taking her picture or hearing a few of  
the last words in her unusual-sounding language. From me she wanted  
impossible sums of money. When I tried to sneak in early one morning  
for a quick interview, word traveled in the village so fast that within  
minutes her granddaughter/booking agent was through the door and a  
screaming match broke out (not in Yaghan).

  That night, Aguilera and I decided to pursue a rumor that there was in  
fact another Yaghan, a penultimate speaker named Emelinda, who hadn't  
mastered the cruise-ship racket. We managed to get inside Emelinda's  
house without attracting attention.

  She was a kind old woman whose Yaghan, according to Aguilera, was  
authentic. Our conversation was brief and brittle. When I asked  
Emelinda what could be done to keep Yaghan alive, she said she was  
already doing it, as if a formal program were under way.

  ''I talk to myself in Yaghan,'' Emelinda explained in Spanish. ''When  
I hang up my clothes outside, I say the words in Yaghan. Inside the  
house, I talk in Yaghan all day long.''

  I asked her if she ever had a conversation with the only other person  
in the world who could easily understand her, Cristina Calderón, the  
official ''last speaker'' of Yaghan.

  ''No,'' Emelinda said impatiently, as if I'd brought up a sore topic.  
''The two of us don't talk.''

  After returning from Chile, I learned that the last-speaker hustle  
isn't new. Remember Red Thunder Cloud, the last Catawba speaker?  
Actually, he was Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West, the son of an  
African-American druggist in Newport, R.I. According to Ives Goddard of  
the Smithsonian, West was ''a great mimic and fast learner.'' He  
quickly mastered the language, donned some turquoise jewelry and, until  
his death in 1996, worked the last-speaker circuit. Usually, he could  
be found at county fairs, hawking Red Thunder Cloud's Accabonac  
Princess American Indian Tea -- ''fresh from the American forest to  

  There's a paradox in those last-speaker stories. After all, what is  
driving these languages off the cliff but sheer economics? It only  
makes a kind of poetic sense that in their death throes their speakers  
would resort to economic ploys. But this is also where the  
environmental metaphor of endangered languages falls apart. Getting  
down to a few in number is irreversibly the end of, say, a fern or a  
tiger. For humans, it's often the beginning of politics.

  The very success of English as a global language is prompting a  
revival of ancestral tongues. Compared to the die-off now in progress,  
it's a drop in the bucket. Still, many native American languages have  
reacted against these near-death experiences. The Miami in Oklahoma and  
the Mohawk straddling the Canadian border have full-scale programs for  
language revival. Native Hawaiian, also written off only a few decades  
ago, has 18 schools teaching a new generation in the original language  
of the islands.

  Partly with money from government lawsuits -- the Catawba received $50  
million in 1993 after suing over land claim disputes dating to 1760 --  
and partly with revenue from casinos, many of these tribes are rushing  
to get the programs up and running before the last of the speaking  
elders die. The Tuscarora tribe near Niagara Falls, N.Y., is down to  
Howdy Hill, the last speaker who grew up learning the language at home.  
But now a revival program claims as many as 25 new speakers.

  Other languages are long past the last speaker, yet revival is still  
not out of the question. Stephanie Fielding is the great-great-niece of  
Fidelia Fielding, the last speaker of Mohegan, who died in 1908.  
Fielding is currently enrolled in M.I.T.'s linguistics program. She is  
58 and devoted to resurrecting her ancestors' language, largely from  
her aunt's diaries. The academic degree to which she aspires has not  
yet been accredited. A master's with a concentration in ''language  
reclamation'' will be available from M.I.T. at the earliest by 2005 or  
2006, according to Norvin Richards, an associate professor of  

  ''The number of people who contacted us in the last year is about 20,  
which in linguistics is a bit largish,'' Richards said. M.I.T. will  
have to compete with the University of Arizona and the University of  
Alaska Fairbanks, which already offer reclamation degrees.

  Most of these language-revival movements model themselves on the  
national language of Israel. For more than two millenniums, Hebrew was  
found almost exclusively in Scripture and rabbinical writings. Its  
retreat was nearly complete -- out of the public square, into the house  
and finally into the scrolls of the Torah. But the early pioneers of  
what would become Israel faced a politically charged question: which of  
their languages should dominate? Ashkenazi Yiddish? Russian? German?  
Sephardic Ladino? The commonly agreed-upon answer was supplied by  
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Jewish linguist who used the stiff, formal  
language of the Bible to conjure into existence a modern version -- now  
the main language of 3.6 million people. (Of course, Hebrew's comeback  
has helped drive Yiddish and Ladino into ''endangered'' status.)

  Language revival as a means of identity politics may well be the way  
of the future. The big fight in linguistics over the past two decades  
has been about English First. But first is no longer the question. Now  
the question is, What will be your second language? In America, the  
drift in high-school curriculums has always been toward a second  
dominant language -- French, Spanish, German, maybe Chinese if you're a  
rebel. But what if the second language could be that of your ancestors?

  That possibility is already proving to be quite popular with many  
people. As their initiatives succeed and become more visible, they will  
drive into the open a question for English-speaking Americans, the  
owner-operators of the dominant linguistic ecosystem. Do we want to  
dwell in a society that encourages linguistic revival and cultural  
diversity, knowing that with it may come a lot of self-righteous  
minority-pitying? Or, shall we just sit contentedly amid a huge  
cultural die-off, harrumphing like some drunk uncle at the family  
reunion angrily spilling his beer and growling, ''Let 'em die''? Keep  
in mind that if the actuarial tables are correct, it means that once  
the languages start to die off in earnest, there will be a ''death of  
the last speaker'' article in the papers, on average, every 12 days.

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he other paradox of this gathering twilight is that while the grown-ups 
are having their arguments about what we should and shouldn't do -- and 
after the linguists have compiled their dictionaries and put together 
their grammars -- the future of all these resurrections will depend on 

  Will it become cool to speak and live and sing and groove in, say, 
Mohegan? It depends.

  Twenty years ago, the distinct language of Welsh was in intensive 
care, destined to die. Now 21 percent of the people in Wales speak it 
regularly. Gaelic in Ireland has failed, by comparison. Maybe 3 percent 
of the people in Ireland speak Gaelic regularly today. Some argue that 
Wales needed something extra to distinguish itself from the English up 
the road, while the Irish live on an island. But other observers, like 
the author David Crystal, point to the influence of the kids. In his 
book ''Language Death,'' he cites a small scandal that broke out in 
1998. The Welsh band Manic Street Preachers promoted a new album in 
Cardiff by hanging an enormous banner written in the old tongue. When 
he saw it, Peter Hughes Griffiths, a professor at Trinity College in 
Carmathen who teaches the language, condemned the banner for using 

  ''You would have thought the group would have made the effort to make 
sure the poster was grammatically correct,'' he fumed to an English 
newspaper. ''Standards are not being kept up.''

  The professor was quickly hooted down by newspapers and by the Welsh 
Language Board. He had missed the point: kids would propel the 
language, not him. Kids -- with their mistakes, bastardizations, slang, 
import words and poor syntax -- will be the ones who breathe new casual 
life into old formal syntax. That said, there always remains the other 
possibility -- that the next generation will decide that the native 
tongue is preposterous, and poof.

  On my last day in Puerto Eden, we didn't have the proper glue to 
connect the lengths of PVC pipe. So we improvised, building small fires 
beneath each end until the plastic softened enough to slip one pipe 
over the other. Problem solved, we went inside for a celebratory cup of 
tea. Luis and Maria Isabel have one child, a daughter, Maria José, 15. 
She was visiting her parents from the mainland, where she's in school.

  ''I am Kawesqar,'' she said, just like her mom. But where Mom made 
solemn promises that one day she'll learn the language, Maria José 
swears to it while laughing. She had on a tight sweater and elephant 
bell-bottoms, and she had attached the bottom of each pant leg to the 
sole of her shoe, with tacks, to create a perfect flare on each leg. 
While we spoke, she watched the television set where a top-hits show 
blasted techno music beamed in from dominant-culture HQ some 10,000 
miles away. She danced along. I lighted my last cigarette.

  ''Fire!'' she shouted in perfect English, pointing to my match. She 
burst out laughing. ''I speak Kawesqar!'' Her mother laughed and leaned 
over to tell me that the Kawesqar word for ''match'' is precisely the 
English word ''fire'' -- dating back to when the first British explorer 
handed a Kawesqar nomad a box of matches. Maybe it was Darwin himself; 
maybe that moment was the beginning of the end for this old language.

  Or the beginning of a new Kawesqar. Maria José looked directly at the 
TV, carefully mimicking the latest moves, dancing and giggling out of 
control. ''Fire! Fire! Fire!''

  Jack Hitt is a contributing writer. His last article for the magazine 
was a profile of a spam entrepreneur.

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