Today I used Google to translate “International Mother Language Day” from English to Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, my two main ancestral tongues. I needed Google’s help: neither language survived my family’s migration across the Atlantic.
I have no idea if Google’s translations are correct. I certainly would not try to say them: any traces I once had of my father’s or mother’s tongues were jeered to death in an Alberta elementary school, by classmates who found my odd Scottish word, and most of my pronunciation, hilarious.
Only with maturity did I realize the shame was not mine.
Shame, often backed by violence, is one tool conformists use to eradicate indigenous languages. Another is ignorance.
The story of what happened to my ancestral languages is similar to the story of language around the world. Take Welsh, for an example. “In the later 19th century, virtually all teaching in the schools of Wales was in English, even in areas where the pupils barely understood English,” notes Wikipedia. “Some schools used the Welsh Not, a piece of wood, often bearing the letters “WN”, which was hung around the neck of any pupil caught speaking Welsh. The pupil could pass it on to any schoolmate heard speaking Welsh, with the pupil wearing it at the end of the day being given a beating.”
Languages get more respect in the 21st Century, enough to have their own annual day designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, since 2000. States UNESCO: “Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus playing an important role in promoting sustainable futures.”
Culture, values and traditional knowledge sustain peoples. But, along with independent thought, they impede those who would build empires.
In my own family’s experience, the empire builders were the elites and rulers of England, whose victims included not only the peoples of its colonies, but any British Isles people who dared deny or defy their hegemony in culture and commerce.
These English strong men (and the odd woman) did their best to erase indigenous languages throughout their empire, from the Gaelic of Scotland’s Hebrides to the Carrier of British Columbia, Canada. They only partly succeeded.
But languages continue to vanish, lost in the increasing homogenization of our global village.
“At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered,” says the United Nations. “Every two weeks a language disappears taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.”
A global effort to recover what was lost – or taken – is underway. Will it succeed? A glimmer of hope: In Wales and Scotland, governments and, yes, schools, officially recognize and actively promote traditional tongues. In Canada, where I now live, the indigenous tongues are again taught, and many non-indigenous have learned to at least say hello or thank you in one of the languages.
Today, this language-impoverished immigrant Canadian wishes Happy Diwrnod Rhyngwladol Mamiaith to my Welsh relatives, and Latha Eadar-nàiseanta Cànan Màthair to my Scottish kin.
Have I got those right, thanks to Google? No clue. But there’s reason to hope that future Welsh or Scottish peoples will be able to read them – without resorting to digital translations.
UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/international-mother-language-day/
United Nations International Mother Language Day: https://www.un.org/en/observances/mother-language-day
Four Things That Happen When a Language Dies. … why many say we should be fighting to preserve linguistic diversity. Smithsonian, February 21, 2017: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/four-things-happen-when-language-dies-and-one-thing-you-can-do-help-180962188/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=socialmedia&fbclid=IwAR15NJU4c58rbje1NX-A50f15WwfXZXJvLx1sgxtWqGZWcpXHmcpZNuKVT4
Wikipedia page for the Welsh language: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_language#Status