Learning an Endangered Language

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

The 58,552 speakers of Scottish Gaelic are, according to UNESCO, speaking a ‘definitely endangered’ language  for, in general, their children are no longer learning Gaelic as their mother tongue. Although the extinction of Gaelic is far from inevitable, if the songs of the famous Gaelic poet Donnchadh Bàn can still be heard and understood a hundred years from now Gaelic will be an anomaly, for of the 6000-7000 languages spoken today an estimated 50-90% will be extinct by 2100.

Culture is often at the centre of any argument for the preservation of endangered languages, for if the language is lost then we lose with it a whole plethora of songs, stories, myths and religious folklore as well as in depth local knowledge of the natural world. If Gaelic fades into the past then with it will go the creative efforts and cumulative knowledge of an entire people.

But there is something even more intrinsically important to language than culture, for as Wittgenstein said “the limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Unlike Chomsky, Wittgenstein saw language not simply as a tool for conveying what we think, but instead as demonstrating the way in which we think. Language is often seen as the bridge between thought and reality, yet it is language which stakes out the boundaries of our reality. For example, not only can we not talk about Australian Aboriginal concepts of time with our terms of ‘past, present and future’ but we cannot even think of them. In his book ‘Spoken Here’  Mark Abley says “What the survival of threatened languages means, perhaps, is the endurance of dozens, hundreds, thousands of subtly different notions of truth. With our astonishing powers of technology, it’s easy for us in the West to believe we have all the answers. Perhaps we do-to the questions we have asked. But what if some questions elude our capacity to ask? What if certain ideas cannot be fully articulated in our words?”

And so perhaps when people question me fervently as to my reasons for learning Gaelic I will simply tell them that I am on a quest for truth.

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