Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

Speaking in tongues

If a language is so intent on dying that no-one wants to speak it, should we try to save it?
The Mangyan Heritage Center is trying to keep an ancient Filipino script of the Baybayin language alive. Photo: Aya Lowe
The Mangyan Heritage Center is trying to keep an ancient Filipino script of the Baybayin language alive. Photo: Aya Lowe

Latin, despite the frequent declarations of schoolchildren, is not a dead language (and certainly has never killed anyone). But while it is still frequently studied it is less frequently spoken, and certainly nowhere as a native language. By contrast, the languages that descend from it such as Spanish, Italian and French, are spoken by hundreds of millions of people.

The report in The National yesterday on Baybayin, an old language in the Philippines that is on the verge of extinction, has shed light on the evolution and death of languages worldwide. There is a Darwinian school of thought when it comes to languages: that more successful languages like Arabic and English have, essentially, “out-competed” small languages. If no one chooses to speak Baybayin, will it really be missed?

Another school of thought, however, sees language as a part of a culture, not merely a way of transmitting ideas but a way of forming them. How different would the grand poetry of the Arabs sound in Tagalog? How would German philosophical treatises read if written in Urdu?

Perhaps then there is a case for preserving these dying languages, especially now that the technology exists. It could be a new Babel, not a tower to the sky, but a museum of languages. And where better to build it than right here in the Middle East?

Updated: August 27, 2014 04:00 AM

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