Babble On, Say Researchers In 'Linguists' Documentary

Researcher Gregory Anderson listens as Don Francisco Ninacondis (with grandson Ariel) speaks Kallawaya, which fewer than 100 people understand.
Researcher Gregory Anderson listens as Don Francisco Ninacondis (with grandson Ariel) speaks Kallawaya, which fewer than 100 people understand. ("The Linguists")
By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Doesn't your life seem like a daily adventure in linguistics? Americans today routinely encounter more languages from more continents than at any time in the past century. Whether you're getting a meal or a clean shirt or a cab, or visiting a university or a hospital or simply walking through the mall, it's easy to think you're living in the golden age of language diversity.

But apparently, you would be wrong.

Languages are dying by the hundreds -- the thousands -- all over the world as you stand there trying to figure out the menu on Wilson Boulevard. And before you can be churlish enough to say, yeah, and the problem with that would be what? -- wasn't life better before the Tower of Babel? -- here comes a movie to set you straight that is so au courant, if you know what we mean, that it was shown at Sundance.

Called "The Linguists," it is basically a home movie with better than average production values -- which, come to think of it, may be a useful definition of indie movies -- that could have been subtitled "Dave and Greg's Excellent Language Adventures."

These guys travel to parts of Siberia, Bolivia and India so truly godforsaken that the film of Arizona Indian country looks cosmopolitan. All in the service of warning us that half the world's 7,000 languages are going extinct. These include Gta', in India, which features words that efficiently capture concepts at which English flails. Such as:

· "Goteh," which means "bring something from an inaccessible place with the help of a long stick";

· "Nosore," which means "to free someone from a tiger"; and

· "Poh," which means "to kill lice by pressing them under your nails."

It also turns out that in the Bella Coola/Nuxalk language of Canada, you can find such words as "stshlh" for "afterbirth" or "stsnts" for "transsexual/hermaphrodite."


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