Thus the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English.
The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic. The click sounds in certain African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.
I’m currently working with an — unorthodox — linguist, Richard, who is also a back-to-the-land hippy slash photographer; his project of the last few decades is to help preserve the language of the Penobscot Indian tribe in Maine. The last fluent native speaker (according to some) Madeline died a decade ago. Richard was able to record Madeline’s voice and put together a slideshow presentation, pairing his photos of Indian life with Madeline’s response to them in Penobscot. It’s an interesting project, by no means academically rigorous, but meaningful and beautiful in its own way.
It’s interesting how a dying language is treated. Outsiders race to preserve it and those of the culture that “dies” are often offended — from what I’ve heard many native American tribes are understandably suspicious of the “White Man’s” involvement. The language and its preservation become politicized. The Penobscots are currently battling the academic opinion that their language is “extinct” and, accordingly, any efforts to “preserve” it.
Gosh, I know almost nothing about Madeline, or the Penobscot tribe, or, really, linguistics. But I find it hard to believe that, when she died, only an ‘aesthetic’ was lost. Madeline was, first of all, a superb basket maker. I can’t find any photos online now of her work, but there are some of an apprentice’s. (When the work I’m doing comes online, there will be many available.)
She was also humorous, smart, insightful. One of my favorite quotes in the project is her response to a photo of one of her baskets:
That’s mine. I made that one. That’s like a wedding basket, and I gave that to my girlfriend, and she guessed, she said is that a wedding basket? I said, No, it isn’t, I didn’t want to say yes and get her hopes up too high. [Speaks penobscot…] “I gave her a basket so she can get married” … she’ll kill me if she ever hears that.
Here’s another nice quote, from an online article Last of the Penobscots:
“When I showed Madeline a picture of the outfall from the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Mill—and make no mistake, this is an insult to the Penobscot people, the crap that it pukes into the river,” [Richard] Garrett remembers. “I figured, Oh well. She’s not going to know what this is. But that wasn’t the case at all.”
Here, Garrett quotes [Madeline] Tomer in Penobscot, words that translate to “That’s the white man’s bad medicine.”
I suppose if you can neatly separate language and those who use it, it’s natural to call it an aesthetic. It’s true that Madeline did, after all, speak English, and that’s certainly the only way I (for one) understand her. But to say objectively that what a language means ultimately reduces to the difference between pronouncing “dizz-gusting” and “dis-gusting” (McWhorter’s example) amplified over centuries and millennia of random evolution, seems at best disrespectful to those who live in a language. What it means to them is likely much more. I know that, for myself, many English words have incredibly rich emotional associations, in certain contexts, spoken by certain people. But I do agree with McWhorter’s sentiment that one cannot say, for instance, a Native American culture is “dead” because no one speaks the language.