Preserving Languages

Preserving Language: Something Left to Translate

If you follow our Facebook page , you may have noticed a trend over the last several weeks. Many of our recent Facebook posts have reflected a number of movements in the interest of preserving languages. You may remember that we’re fairly sensitive to trends here at Tone.

Languages are born and die all the time. If we asked you to think of a dead language, Latin may immediately come to mind. Even though it is often studied in an academic setting and used in religious or legal context, you would be correct that Latin is a dead language. In other words, it is no longer the native language of any particular community. Its legacy lives on in French, English (partially), Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and others. One might even say that this was the natural “evolution” of language. Latin itself may no longer be actively used, but its influence created the base for these other languages.

Evolution vs. Extinction

This “evolution” of a language is not always the case. Sometimes there are cases of languages simply being overtaken by a more “popular” or widely spoken language and becoming extinct. The Ainu language is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The Ainu are a people indigenous to the easternmost parts of Russian, Hokkaido the northernmost island of Japan, and the Kamchatka Peninsula. In Japan alone, only 25,000 people are on record as being ethnically Ainu. However, due to the assimilation of the Ainu people into the nation of Japan, it is thought to be closer to 200,000 people. (Tofugu) Today, there are only 2 native speakers of the Ainu language on record (The Endangered Language Project). Overtime, as new generations rise, they do not adopt the language of their previous generations and this extinction begins.


Your first thought may be, why preserve a language if it is on its way out? If language is merely an extension of the “survival of the fittest” then what is the problem? As we have said before, language and cultural identity are very much intertwined. With cultural identity comes perspective, and with perspective comes freedom- freedom of thought, choice, and speech.

It may sound like a good thing to have a unified language, but there is an enormous “if” that comes with that idea. A unified language can be a good thing if it is not forced. Man-made language extinction hinges upon a crucial idea: choice. Identity is an aspect of the human experience that is the result of choices. When choice is removed from the equation, the question of language rights comes in to play. In places like Ireland, Australia, India, and even in Alaska, initiatives for the preservation of language have generated real momentum for the sake of the language rights of the indigenous languages of those areas and more are finding footing. Regardless of the form they take, “language” will always mean the plural: languages.

Tone and Language Preservation

Regardless of the form they take, we’re confident that we will always have something to translate. Translation, in a way, is a form of advocacy. We work in languages like Karen (S’gaw), Kinyarwanda, Maay Maay and Rohingya, preserving and aiding communication in them despite their uncommon place in the wide spectrum of languages.  By having a document translated, you are engaging in an active effort to preserve language in the face of the alternative of a standardized language. The documents we translate have an intrinsic value in the language they were written in. In the act of translation, they are simply communicating that value into a target language. As it is said in Irish, “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam- a nation without a language is a nation without a soul.” We are doing more than preserving languages; we are preserving the soul of culture.



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