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California Indian Languages
California Indian Languages
Victor Golla
University of California Press, 2011
400 pp., $99.95

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John H. McWhorter


Awesomely Alternate Randomnesses

What we learn from California Indian languages.

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But this means that, past childhood, learning these languages is really tough. English speakers find it hard enough to get past Spanish putting adjectives after nouns and marking its nouns with gender. But when we get to languages where instead of just saying go or put you have to also append one of several dozen suffixes indexing exactly what the goer or putter was like and the material nature of what was gone or put—e.g., in Karuk, putting on a glove requires a suffix marking that what happened was "in through a tubular space"—we are faced with a task few busy adults will be in a position to master.

Many years ago I was assigned to spend a few weeks helping speakers of one of the varieties of Pomo recover their language. We had a good time. However, here was a language in which to say "She didn't stay very long and came back," you have to phrase it as, roughly, "Long time it wasn't, she sat and back here-went," putting the verb at the end instead of in the middle and also mouthing sounds unfamiliar to speakers of English or even Spanish (or Russian or Chinese!). I couldn't help thinking that for them—or me—to actually breathe life into this language now surviving only on the page was not going to happen. And they knew it. One told me that she was just hoping to be able to know enough of the language that her descendants could feel a connection to the past and their place in the world.

This struck me as a healthy and achievable goal. Books like Golla's, demonstrating the amazing complexity of these languages, also show that we must alter our sense of what it is to "know" a language. When someone says they play the piano, we do not assume they play like Horowitz. In the same way, in a new world there will exist languages that thrive as abbreviations of what they once were, useable by modern adults who seek a cultural signpost rather than a daily vehicle of communication. Anecdotally, this is already effectively the case with revived languages such as Irish Gaelic and Maori. Their new speakers, using the languages in cultural activities and even in the media to an extent, nevertheless use English much more. They are rarely speaking the language in as full a form as their ancestors did. Yet no one would suppose that this invalidates the effort.

It is unlikely that 6,000 languages will continue to be passed down in fuller form than this, and they will often survive in an even more restricted sense: flash cards, expressions, songs, perhaps some strictly "101" grammar. The difficulty of mastering languages beyond childhood is but one reason why. Amidst globalization, a few widely spoken languages dominate in print, media, and popular music and are necessary to economic success. In this, they inevitably come to be associated with status and sophistication.

The educated Westerner, and especially the anthropologist or linguist, cherishes the indigenous as "authentic" and as a token of diversity in its modern definition. These are laudable perspectives in many ways but are not always shared by those to whom an indigenous language is simply the one they learned on their mother's knee, as ordinary as English is to us. Such a person may not feel especially authentic or diverse to themselves. Often they prioritize increasing their income and embracing the wider world—especially for their children.

The flourishing of 6,000 languages points us back to a much earlier stage of humankind in which all people were distributed in small groups like those in indigenous California, where the basic unit was the "tribelet" of a few hundred people. In the modern world, for better or for worse—and quite often worse—people are coming together. The only question would be why there wouldn't be fewer languages. However, if most of the world's languages cannot continue to be spoken, surely we must utilize the advantage of writing to document what once was.

The fashion is to justify this on the basis of the languages recording the unique worldviews of their speakers. But that notion is more fraught than often supposed. Say we celebrate Karuk for showing that its speakers were especially sensitive to things like tubular insertion. Is the American white kid somewhere in Indiana really less attuned to the snug feeling of getting his fingers into gloves than a Karuk kid in California once was, even if English doesn't have a suffix with that meaning?

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