It is estimated that by the year 2100 50-90% of the world’s current languages will be considered “extinct”- no longer being spoken by a single human being. Currently there are between 6000-7000 languages in use across the planet today. This number seems immense until considering that many of these languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people. The top twenty most prevalent languages are utilized by nearly half of the world and as more and more children learn the ‘dominant’ language as their first, the scale continues to tip, gaining momentum every year.
These statistics neatly describe, in an ideal world, results of increasing exposure and access to one another, although more likely they are results of cultural repression, homogenization and the annihilation of entire human legacies. Following logic down its unfortunate path, accompanying the loss of a language is also the loss of all that it uniquely described and documented. Lost is the irreplaceable firsthand information about the natural world, about the history and traditions of a people, lost is their addition to the expansive human landscape.
Definitive empirical proof about when and why humans first began using language has floated just out of reach at the surface of linguistic sciences for centuries rarely moving beyond speculation and theory. Noam Chomsky, visionary modern linguist, claims (basically) that humans learned speech via an evolutionary jump directly following our ability to comprehend numbers.
“The picture then, by loose analogy, is that the formation of the language faculty in humans is akin to the formation of a crystal; discrete infinity was the seed crystal in a super-saturated primate brain, on the verge of blossoming into the human mind, by physical law, once a single small, but crucial, key stone was added by evolution”.
(quoted from Wikipedia)
Perfectly complementing its original purpose of describing information about the external materialistic world, language has long ago become a way for us to share abstract inner experiences as well. Dr. Amit Goswami Ph.D a theoretical physicist, focuses on detailing this harmony between the inner and outer versions of reality. Growing up with an Indian guru father, a houseful of disciples studying and praying resulted in an adult life filled with the examination of the material, outer world and the universal language of mathematics. Many years into a successful career Dr. Goswami realized that the world he was describing in lectures and texts was incomplete. That’s when he began focusing on the complimentary aspects of inner and outer, drawing from his intimate knowledge of Indian religious experience. Being able to share a complex perspective, thickened by both the tangible and ethereal understanding of a unique human history is perhaps the most valuable skill our species has developed thus far.
It was raining when I arrived in Galway. The hallway should have tipped me off that this was not going to be an enjoyable experience. Its mountains of discarded belongings left only narrow footholds on some stairs and their visible disintegration attested to the age the present condition (I will not mention the smell in an effort to further engage your attention). Regardless, I continued on almost defending the pile of objects that had also slowly multiplied and now hung from every possible strap of my heavy pack. Stepping around the mountainous refuse acting nearly as trail markers I located my bed on the third floor down a dark passage in the corner of a tiny room among many packed full of wooden bunks. I relieved myself of my pack and looked around as I stretched my arms skyward. The beds were more alike to personal shrines than they were to places for sleeping a few nights. My suspicion confirmed as an occupant of a neighboring bunk, quickly into our brief conversation proudly explained she had been living in her particular bed for the past 6 months. With 75,000 inhabitants Galway attracts a constant influx of live musicians looking to perform in one of its many pubs and along with them the required bohemian audience. I saw a traditional group perform that night in a nearby pub and after surviving the sparking electrical wires in the shower, the next morning I headed for the northern coastline.
Glencolumbkille is a tiny coastal town near some of the most bracing seascapes in the country- the union of rock and sea exploding with each wave and sending the resulting white foam high above the cliff’s edge. It is also one of the last areas in Ireland that maintains daily use of Irish Gaelic, the native language of the island. After centuries of clashing and mixing with the British and with official policy instated by the monarchy during its occupation, the overwhelming majority of Irish now speak English. But it wasn’t always so and there still exist populations scattered around the country that work to continue to teach their children and grandchildren the original mother tongue. In welcome contrast to Galway, the accommodation I sought out in Glencolumbkille was perched on a lonely cliff embraced by fog and with the forceful ocean air splattering mists against its windows as they faced defiantly out to sea.
The hotel offered simple private rooms nestled into hallways crawling with all kinds of plants. As one of the only guests I was afforded an exceptionally long hot shower and slept deeply, dreaming of swimming in whirlpools of Prussian blue and cerulean arcs leaping from the silent depths. I consulted local maps over a steaming breakfast which I ate slowly in between long daydreams gazing out toward the horizon. The edge of the world must have felt like this to early explorers I concluded and with this spirit began my day hiking around the neighboring cliffs and hillside. I followed unmarked gravel paths, passing small country homes, a school where I could hear students learning Irish Gaelic and the ruins of generations of builders. The wind was strong, it was the kind that quieted everything else – my thoughts only noise that I quickly dispensed with. In this way the landscape demanded wholeness – outer awareness of balance and direction coupled with a deep inner resonance of energy and presence. I spent several days of ecstatic solitude, enjoying the unusual feeling of completeness. In places and at times amid the lush and lonely hillsides giving way to the rocky cliffs at their edge and with the sunlight spiraling earthward through the dense layers of clouds, the importance of an indigenous set of adjectives was inescapable.