Linguistic richness lends richness to reality


One of the wonders of human existence is that it is characterized by a large number of languages. Because of this multitude of languages, our humanity is characterized by an astonishing richness, color and depth. If we only spoke one language, we would certainly be much poorer!

Unfortunately, this multitude of languages ​​is under serious pressure today. During the past century, around 400 languages ​​have already become extinct, while research predicts that half of the remaining 6,500 languages ​​will be lost to humanity by 2100. In many ways, the whole world is caught up in a process in which language richness is replaced by language poverty.

But why is the multiplicity of mother tongues accompanied by something like cultural richness? And, why does the death of mother tongues lead to cultural poverty?

Already from the Romantic period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, several scholars have pointed out that languages ​​are not just mere means of communication. Although languages ​​also fulfill this function, each language also embodies reality in its own and unique way.

If a language were to die, the implication is therefore that reality itself impoverishes. Formulated even more dramatically, the death of a mother tongue is accompanied by the death of reality (or at least that reality which is broken open by the relevant mother tongue).

In short, language death is not only associated with the loss of another language from the great treasure of languages. Language death is accompanied by a loss of reality. With the death of a language, reality itself is reduced in its full colour, glory and fullness.

The latter is not just a theoretical possibility. It is happening even on our own multilingual doorstep. According to media reports, the last speaker of a unique Khoi-San language, namely the N/uu language, has recently passed away. As a result, the number of Khoi-San languages ​​has not only been reduced, but the unique reality associated with this language has also been lost. This reality was characterized by a special language with its own sounds, unique sayings, legends and lifestyles. We are all, in my opinion, even those who have never heard of the N/uu language, the poorer for this loss.

For clarification, we can also refer to an example from our own literature, namely a poem by MM Walters, “Moses”. This poem is about universal phenomena unique to being human, namely self-sacrifice, doubt and a silent cry for help. In other words, it is about things that can be expressed in any poetry.

What sets the poem “Moses” apart from other similar poems in other languages ​​is its Afrikaans nature. Because of the typical Africanness, the mentioned universal themes are brought up in a distinctive way. It reads as follows:

Just an old white head with dark glasses
staring out across the desert wide-eyed
and wonder what rate tonight
to set sail again with his unruly people.

So far it’s been a blast…
no one who understands his predicament either:
the manna is dry, the water is scarce,
tomorrow he will have to hit the stone again!

The sun is shining, the camp is quiet
only the leader groping for direction –
he sighed and tugged on the soft buckskin
tighter around his belly.

Anyone who can read Afrikaans knows almost immediately upon reading “Moses” that the universal truths of being human are being addressed here in a peculiar or unique Afrikaans way. We can say that the universal themes in the poem take on a living and concrete meaning in our world because of their African nature.

“Moses” translates what is unique to man, regardless of time or place, into a living reality in the mind of the Afrikaans speaker. If we were to play with the impossible thought that our beloved mother tongue would die out, it would mean that the particular and unique ways in which such themes are raised would also become silent.

The above finally brings us to the important question: How can it be ensured that Afrikaans not only continues to exist, but that it continues to shape our reality in a unique way? How can we ensure that our reality is still broken open by our mother tongue in its own peculiar ways?

For the sake of a conclusion, I refer to only two out of several other conditions for languages ​​to still be living languages.

First of all, we have to underline again what researchers have emphasized many times in the past, namely that mother tongue teaching is indispensable for language survival. Without mother tongue education, languages ​​are weakened, and their ability to unlock reality is reduced. With good mother tongue teaching, on the other hand, the opposite happens: it creates the possibility for languages ​​to express the full depth, color and richness of their own reality.

Second, what does mother tongue teaching in turn enable? There is also a broad consensus among researchers on this: For mother tongues not only to survive, but to be able to be a vital presence, they must have institutions within which they can be practiced, cultivated and passed on to future generations.

Native languages ​​that are dying out die because they do not have institutions such as schools, technical colleges and universities. Along with this, these languages ​​also do not have institutions such as businesses, the media, publishing houses, the film industry and theatres. Languages ​​do not exist outside such institutions; languages ​​are passed on to the future in and through such institutions.

May International Mother Language Day contribute to the fact that today there will be a greater awareness of the importance of mother tongue education and the necessity of language institutions. After all, the richness of reality itself is at stake.