“Language Matters,” a film shown Sept. 17 at the University of Alaska Southeast, frames an important question for Southeast Alaska: What does it take to save a language?
To poet Bob Holman, the film’s host, who was in Juneau for the screening, that answer is manifold. It takes respect, Holman said — part of the reason many languages are disappearing, after all, is because of the shame their speakers were made to feel about speaking them during and after colonization. It takes a commitment to early education -- it’s important people learn the language as children. And it is fostered by an acknowledgement of people’s capacity to speak multiple languages; Holman and many of the film’s interviewees say it isn’t natural to speak only one.
“Language Matters,” a documentary the word-loving writer of this article found fascinating, takes Holman and the film crew, led by director/producer/writer David Grubin, from Australia’s Goulburn Islands, to Wales, to Hawaii. On Goulburn, it focuses on Amurdak; in Wales, Welsh; and in Hawaii, Hawaiian. They’re among the thousands of languages that have been listed as endangered, something that Holman calls “a global crisis of massive proportions.”
When you understand how closely identity and culture are related to language, it’s hard to see it as anything but that. According to linguist David Crystal, interviewed in the film, out of the world’s 6,000 current languages, half are expected to die out within the century. That’s one every two weeks, something Crystal points out leads inevitably towards homogenization.
In Australia, where the film starts, many of the island’s inhabitants speak more languages than they can count on one hand. An aboriginal creation story narrated in the film sows multilingualism into the very beginning of one people’s story.
The film features interviews with the speakers of endangered languages, as well as linguists, musicologists, and poets involved with languages’ preservation, among others.
“It’s like someone saying ‘This is me. This is who I am,’” musicologist Reuben Brown, interviewed on Goulburn Island, said of indigenous language and song.
Song, he said, is one of the best ways to remember something.
“When languages sort of start to fade out… one thing that certainly isn’t endangered is song,” he said.
Holman said the team picked Wales because Welsh is the only language that was once listed as endangered, but is not anymore.
Part of that, Welsh people told Holman, is because of Welsh’s love affair with language itself.
For centuries, the Welsh were discriminated against by the English and discouraged from speaking their language.
It took the flooding of a Welsh village in the 1950s, however, for the Welsh people to rise up and demand better treatment. Part of that movement was for the preservation of their language.
Now, Welsh is recognized as an official language, and children can go to school entirely in Welsh.
“It’s a myth of the dominant, usually Anglophone cultures that the normal state is to be monoglot. Actually, far, far more people are multilingual — not just bilingual,” said Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis. “Language should be a meeting place for people.”
The rescue of Hawaiian began with a school. In 1983 a group of activists, without any support from the state, started a Hawaiian-only school. They didn’t have teachers. They didn’t have curriculum. What they did have was someone who spoke Hawaiian as a first language, and conviction.
“Once you make up your mind to do something, there’s always a way to get it done,” the former principal told Holman in the film.
The poet W.S. Merwin lives in Hawaii. “The language knows things that you don’t know, and always does, and always will,” he told Holman. “When we lose it, we’re losing a part of ourselves.”
After the screening at UAS, Tlingit elder David Katzeek commented on the intimate relationship the languages shown in the film have with the Earth.
“To me, that is something that is very, very significant among the indigenous people,” he said.
In Southeast Alaska, indigenous language speakers such as Lance Twitchell, Benjamin Young and David Boxley are working to teach Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, respectively, drawing on the expertise of elders to create written resources of these traditionally oral tongues. Other efforts, such as Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Mentor-Apprentice program, also draw on elders’ knowledge to teach young speakers.
Two days after the film showing, a Tiny Post Office Concert at Kindred Post highlighted one of the most influential of these elders, Tlingit language speaker and former Alaska State Writer Laureate Nora Marks Dauenhauer. Dauenhauer read from her work at the event, along with poets Holman, Christy NaMee Eriksen (organizer of the event and owner of Kindred Post), Dee Jay DeRego and Erika Bergren. (This was the poetry edition of the series, though it had music, as well: poet and musician Guy “Ziggy” Unzicker accompanied most readers on guitar.) Holman, who said he’s known Nora Dauenhauer for 20 years, read a poem that appeared to have been composed on the spot in her honor; he then read a poem by the late Richard Dauenhauer, Nora’s husband. In his introduction of Nora, Holman said that the Dauenhauers have contributed immeasurably to the preservation of Tlingit language and its stories through their written, bilingual oral histories. Holman previously worked with Nora on another film project for PBS, “The United States of Poetry.” (Watch a clip here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6v3u_vamCM)
Ultimately, Holman said, saving some of the billions of the world’s endangered words comes down in part to “accepting the idea that being bilingual is… the most usual way of surviving.”
“Language Matters” was the first of a three-film series at UAS. Sept. 24, there will be a film on revitalizing the Lakota language; Oct. 1, on “the race to save Cherokee.”
Both films are on Thursdays at 7 p.m. in Egan Lecture Hall.
Juneau was the first stop on Holman’s Alaskan tour; over the next month he’ll also be visiting Kotzebue, Barrow, Arctic Village, Fort Yukon, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Homer, and Kodiak.
• Contact Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Watch “Language Matters” for free at http://www.pbs.org/program/language-matters/.