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The Death of Language

6 mins

“The wisdom of humanity is coded in language.”

Lyle Campbell, an American scholar and linguist known for his work on indegenous American languages, hints at a problem much graver than most would care to admit. Even as someone who can speak English fluently, there are times where it just seems more natural to speak in my native language, Hindi. It’s not that it’s any easier or more practical, it’s just that it seems more fitting in that particular situation. This is perhaps difficult to convey in words (isn’t that ironic?) but any bilingual speaker can confirm that instant connection you feel when you talk to someone in a native tongue, especially if it’s in a place where few people speak that language.

There is a Portugese word saudade, a term commonly used in Galician literature and heard in the music of Brazil. What strikes me most about saudade, and many other such words is that they are untranslatable to other languages, yet so undeniable potent. The concept of saudade portrays a meloncholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. Take for example mamihlapinatapai, that is derived from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego and known to be one of the hardest words to translate. It refers to an expressive and meaningful silence, the look that is shared across the table by two people where each understands the other and is in agreement with what is being expressed. I could go on with more examples of elaborate words in foreign tongues, but the point here is that there is a vast expanse of emotion captured in languages that is difficult to convey otherwise.

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