Language in the New Yorker

In recent weeks, two New Yorker pieces on language matters: one on punctuation (by Mary Norris) and one on endangered languages (by Judith Thurman).

Commas. In the February 25th issue, in the “Personal History” category: “Holy Writ: Learning to love the house style” by Mary Norris, which begins, engagingly:

I didn’t set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had, the summer I was fifteen, was checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland.

She then runs through a series of other jobs, ending by falling into work at the editorial library at the New Yorker and, eventually, on the copydesk. She now confesses, “when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas”, and tells us about them.

Now — this week — the book has come out: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

Endangered languages. In the “Annals of Conservation” calegory in the March 20th issue, “A Loss for Words: Can a dying language be saved?” by Judith Thurman, which begins:

It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are — like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia — the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez [who uses his tribal nane, Keyuk], who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.

The explanation:

The survivors of the Selk’nam Genocide, as it is called—a population of about four thousand was reduced to some three hundred — were resettled on reservations run by missionaries. The last known fluent speaker of the language, Angela Loij, a laundress and farmer, died forty years ago.

… Since his teens, Keyuk has composed songs in Selk’nam, and he performs with an “ethno-electronic” band. But he carried himself with solemnity, as if conscious of the flame he tended — or, at least, said that he tended. How, I asked, could I be sure that he really spoke Selk’nam, if no one else did? He smiled slightly and said, “I guess I have the last word.”

Keyuk has been carrying out a program of, in effect, language invention, using a rather small base of information about Selk’nam. But the bulk of Thurman’s piece is about less dramatic and creative efforts to halt or reverse the process of language death, using information from two people:

Daniel Kaufman, a linguist who directs the Endangered Language Alliance, a nonprofit institute on West Eighteenth Street;

and K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, who’s the director of research at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, based in Salem, Oregon, and heads National Geographics Enduring Voices Project.

[Digression: other resources she could have used:

(1) The Endangered Language Fund (ELF) [founded 1997] is a small non-profit organization based in New Haven, Connecticut. E.L.F. supports endangered language maintenance and documentation projects that aim to preserve the world’s languages while contributing rare linguistic data to the scientific community.

… The founder of the Endangered Language fund is Douglas Whalen, who served as its president until 2015, when he became Chair of the Board of Directors. The current president is Monica Macaulay and vice president is Claire Bowern. The offices of the Fund are presently located in space lent by Haskins Laboratories. There is no formal affiliation between the two organizations. (Wikipedia link)

(2) the Foundation for Endangered Languages, founded in 1996, a registered charity in England and Wales, with Nicholas Ostler as its current chair (website here). Note that its headquarters are i the UK.

(3) SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) is a U.S.-based, worldwide, Christian non-profit organization [founded in 1933], whose main purpose is to study, develop and document languages, especially those that are lesser-known, in order to expand linguistic knowledge, promote literacy, translate the Christian Bible into local languages, and aid minority language development. … Its headquarters are located in Dallas, Texas. (Wikipedia link)

Because of its missionary associations and some controversial past history, many linguists and native people are wary of dealing with SIL.]

In any case, she tells the story of rapidly shrinking communities of speakers and energetic attempts to reverse the tide or, at least, to document the affected languages and cultures.

Sometimes, more heroic efforts have succeeded. From Thurman:

On rare occasions, an extinct language has been resurrected. Jessie Little Doe Baird, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, in Massachusetts, received a MacArthur grant, in 2010, for her efforts to revive her people’s extinct language, Wôpanâak. The tribe had been decimated by disease in the seventeenth century, and the last speakers died a hundred years ago. But written records of the language were relatively plentiful.

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