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Preserving Our Language

July 25, 2008

In writing about the Salish people of western Montana, I mentioned their language. Native American languages are among those in danger of disappearing, but the Salish are employing interesting and successful methods to preserve their language.

For example, they are using a version of the International Phonetic Alphabet to write down the words in a script that captures their sound. They are also learning, from their elders, the Salish names for places in their traditional homeland — names that are often a capsule history — and putting them on road signs in both English and the phonetic script. Finally, they have elementary schools for language immersion and an impressive tribal college, a highlight of our visit.

One of my colleagues happened to strike up a conversation with some non-natives and told them about these efforts at language preservation. The huffy response: “Someone should work on preserving English!”

Well, there’s an idea. It’s a little late, though. Old English, also known as Anglo Saxon, lost its purity when the Vikings invaded the British Isles beginning in the eighth century and again during the Norman Conquest of 1066, which brought a flood of French derivations into the language. Then came my favorite linguistic event, the Great Vowel Shift, which changed the sound of Middle English entirely. Finally, a myriad of different cultures donated their vocabularies to English, which is why we don’t get on the phone and order an “Italian pie” for supper. Oh yes, and we Americans, along with the Canadians and Australians and so on, have participated in both the spread and corruption of the English language.

Perhaps the next question is what will happen to English in the age of the Internet. It will continue to evolve because it is the language of a living culture, just as the Salish language belongs to a living and thriving culture. The point is that it has always been, and will still be, English.

Side note: The Anglo Saxons had this odd sound in their language, represented by the letter called thorn. It’s the diphthong “th,” and it doesn’t exist in most other languages. That’s why English language learners have a tough time with “the” and will often say “zee” or “da” (da Bears) instead. (I’m sure the Anglo Saxons would enjoy knowing that.)

This entry was posted by: Nancy
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