Friday, February 5, 2010


This story in the BBC has been making me think a lot over the last two days.

In summary, this woman (Boa Sr) on a small island off of India died, which is not particularly interesting in and of itself. She was important though because she was the final speaker of a language thought to be 70,000 years old. Her home, the Andaman Islands south of India, are full of languages that are on the verge of extinction.

The researcher, K. David Harrison, who brought all this to attention is a linguist who says that these languages are something special to be preserved as they hold vasts amounts of untapped knowledge that non-speakers won't understand. This interview has a lot of good stuff in it--if you can sit through the idiotic interviewer. He talks a lot about the link between culture and language and the sort of colonialist mentality we (Westerners) still carry with us when we "discover" something that other people already knew about. Good stuff if you like languages or have to teach another language in a foreign land.

Boa Sr's influence on me is that she has made me re-examine my Peace Corps language experience. In some way I am envious of volunteers in other places who have learned what might be thought of as "more useful languages" (ex. South American volunteers learning Spanish, or French is Western Africa). Wiki says that about 500 million people speak French to some degree. Compare that to the estimated 11 million that speak my dialect--Hiligaynon. My command of the Hiligaynon language probably isn't going to put me on the top of any hiring stacks. I can imagine the interview now:

HR Guy: Well let's see your resume here...Dean's list, grad school, Peace Corps. Oh! Hiligaynon huh? well we've been in demand of a Hiligaynon speaker for years. Thank god we found you!

Yeah right.

But the longer I stay here, and the more I am entrenched in the culture of the Philippines the more I come to love my language. It impresses people that I know what they're saying and it gives me a leg up when meeting new people. My original expectation when I found out that I was coming to the Philippines was that I would learn Tagalog, which serves as the basis for the "national language" Filipino. Kaelin was there with me with my silly Roseta Stone practicing my "batang lalaki" and "Nakasakay sa kabayo ang lalaki".

If I had indeed learned Tagalog instead of Hiligaynon all those months ago in training, and then tried to go around Bacolod speaking to people, they would have thought I was crazy. Even I do it. This girl got on my jeep the other day and started "Po-ing" the jeep driver (Po is the blanket respect word in Tagalog). She may as well have been wearing a sign that said, "I'm not from here." And when the white guy knows that it means everyone must be thinking it.

I could probably spend hours going on about language, but I will wrap up this post so I can get some sleep. Sadly, Ms. Boa's death has brought an end to her noble tongue and the deep culture that I'm sure was associated with it. But it has brought me closer to my own small language and made me cherish it that much more.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Hey Justin! I know I haven't talked to you in forever, but I've been following your blog and I'm glad you're back! Hope you're doing well and the holidays were good for you:)
Sarah Masters