Fad­ing into Obliv­ion

Lan­guage ex­perts say half of the world’s nearly 7,000 lan­guages are ex­pected to be ex­tinct by the end of this cen­tury. Asia is where nearly half of th­ese en­dan­gered lan­guages are spo­ken. The con­ti­nent will lose more than means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion when th­ese

Asian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Text Ra­jeswari Viki­ra­man and Rachel Kwek

Lan­guage makes com­mu­ni­ca­tion pos­si­ble but its sig­nif­i­cance is not merely lim­ited to its func­tion as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool. A man­i­fes­ta­tion of a cul­tural iden­tity, a lan­guage cre­ates cul­tural sol­i­dar­ity amongst its speak­ers and forms part of a per­son’s iden­tity. Lan­guage, ow­ing to its use to en­code in­for­ma­tion, con­tains a wealth of knowl­edge – espe­cially in­sights into the unique lo­cales that th­ese lan­guages orig­i­nate from. For th­ese rea­sons, lan­gauge is it­self a form of her­itage.

The dom­i­nance and ap­peal of lan­guages such as the English lan­guage, a de­sire to as­sim­i­late into larger com­mu­ni­ties, so­cioe­co­nomic and de­mo­graphic changes, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion, marginal­i­sa­tion and ur­ban­i­sa­tion are some of the rea­sons why lan­guages are pushed into en­dan­ger­ment.

In the last cen­tury, about 400 lan­guages have be­come ex­tinct. To put this fig­ure into per­spec­tive, we have lost one lan­guage ev­ery three months. With this un­prece­dented rate of dis­ap­pear­ance, lan­guage ex­perts project that half of the nearly 7,000 lan­guages that ex­ist to­day will per­ish – along with the unique knowl­edge they con­tain – by the end of this cen­tury. Espe­cially trou­bling is the loss of lan­guages with­out writ­ing sys­tems and his­tor­i­cal records. Al­most half of the en­dan­gered lan­guages listed in Google’s En­dan­gered Lan­guages Project come from Asia. What can we do to pre­vent this loss of lan­guage di­ver­sity in Asia? ASIAN Geo­graphic takes a closer look at five of th­ese highly en­dan­gered lan­guages in South­east Asia. ag

Ugong Coun­try it’s spo­ken in: Thai­land Re­gion: Uthai Thani and Suphan­buri prov­inces

Also known as Gong, Lawa and Ugawng, Ugong is spo­ken in iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties in Uthai Thani and Suphan­buri prov­inces in west­ern Thai­land. The lan­guage was al­ready in se­vere de­cline when Western­ers dis­cov­ered it in the 1920s. Among fac­tors re­spon­si­ble for the de­cline in the use of the lan­guage are oc­cu­pa­tion by Thais, lack of schools, chil­dren not be­ing taught the lan­guage even at home and mar­riage with mem­bers of other com­mu­ni­ties. The dis­place­ment of vil­lagers who speak the lan­guage due to dam con­struc­tion has con­trib­uted to its de­cline. As a re­sult, the Ugong com­mu­nity has be­come a stig­ma­tised mi­nor­ity in Thai­land and this fur­ther en­dan­gers the lan­guage’s sur­vival. The last chil­dren speak­ers were recorded in the 1970s and now, most Ugong chil­dren speak Thai as their first lan­guage.

S’aoch Coun­try it’s spo­ken in: Cam­bo­dia Re­gion: Veal Renh

There are over 20 lan­guages that are spo­ken in Cam­bo­dia. The United Na­tions cul­tural agency, UNESCO, has warned that 19 of th­ese are at risk of ex­tinc­tion, and th­ese are mostly mi­nor­ity lan­guages.

S’aoch is one of the mi­nor­ity tribes in Cam­bo­dia and only 10 speak­ers of the lan­guage re­main, mak­ing it the most en­dan­gered lan­guage in the coun­try. The S’aoch com­mu­nity was se­verely af­fected dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge rule and has been sub­jected to ex­treme poverty. With the as­so­ci­a­tion with poverty, even peo­ple from the com­mu­nity it­self have re­jected the lan­guage and have cho­sen to speak Kh­mer, the dom­i­nant lan­guage in Cam­bo­dia, in­stead. The young are also taught Kh­mer in schools and do not take an in­ter­est in learn­ing S’aoch.

A scholar of the lan­guage, Jean-Michel Filippi, has taken it upon him­self to record the lan­guage be­fore it per­ishes, and his ef­forts have come in the form of a 6,000word dic­tionary as well as a book on the S’aoch peo­ple.

Im­age Shuttersto­ck ABOVE A woman work­ing in a paddy field, in Shan State, Myan­mar

Im­age Shuttersto­ck

BE­LOW An elderly woman weav­ing silk on a tra­di­tional man­ual loom in Uthai Thani, Thai­land

Shuttersto­ck

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