1. Once upon a time an explorer came across an old lady, or about the decay and death of a language

This post is also available in: Catalan


Joan A. Argenter

In memory of the last speakers of a language*

I found one old woman who still remembered her native language. I persuaded her to allow me to partake of her knowledge. At first, only with difficulty, she recalled eleven words. I wrote them down, and they struck me as being of the Udehe tongue. Fifty years ago, when she had been a girl of twenty, she had not known a single word of Chinese, but now she had completely lost her sense of nationality, even her own mother-tongue.
(Vladimir K. Arseniev, Dersu the Trapper, London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1939: 143. [Translation by M. Burr])

The name of Vladimir Arseniev may be unknown to the reader. However, if he or she is a great film lover or happens to be of an age to have seen it, the name of Dersu Uzala may bring to mind the character in a beautiful film by Akira Kurosawa, which was shot in a landscape of great natural beauty: the taiga in the Eastern corner of Siberia.

Arseniev was not a linguist. In fact, he was a military explorer and cartographer who had been ordered to venture deep into the unknown Eastern corner of Siberia to map its geography, its vegetation and its ethnography, as well as to perform geological prospecting. He seemed to have had the ability to handle all kinds of very different people, since he had to deal with different nations along the way and was able to seek help and get it. Dersu Uzala, who belonged to the Nanai or Gold ethnic group, became Arseniev’s guide. He was a solitary nomadic hunter with animist beliefs who knew the taiga very well, as he was used to moving around in the area. This unequal relationship turned into a true friendship: the guide became teacher to the soldier lost in the taiga, and Arseniev invited Dersu to live in his cosy house in Khabarovsk. The superficial comfort of the city overwhelmed Dersu and, in spite of his having lost too much of his sight to survive in the forest, he went back and remained there until he died. This relationship was the topic of one of several books written by Arseniev and the basis for Kurosawa’s movie.

Arseniev was not a linguist, but the quotation by the explorer at the beginning of this paper is a proof that he was aware of a phenomenon already current a hundred years ago —between 1902 and 1907 he undertook explorations in the area, as described in his two books dated 1921 and 1923. This phenomenon is the death of a language, the process of obsolescence in the brains of different generations of speakers that leads to its total oblivion and the consequent destruction of linguistic diversity. It is a problem that is becoming increasingly frequent in the world and whose seriousness was reported by linguists just twenty years ago. It is true that there is something after the death of a language, some remains, probably the eleven words that the old lady remembered, probably a saying that a descendant of hers may know how to repeat without understanding it, probably an incomplete prayer or a verse from a traditional song… Or maybe a handful, a remnant, of words and grammar features of the recessive language in the dominant language (lexical and structural borrowings, place names, etc.). Or perhaps the language will remain silent or dormant, rather than dead forever, until someone recovers its voice once again.

Udehe or Udege is a Manchu-Tungus language, part of the great Altaic family. Was the old lady that Arseniev met the last speaker of Udehe? The truth is that she, who ‘did not know a single word in Chinese fifty years ago’, may be just a ‘rememberer’, one of the inferior categories that linguists use to refer to speakers according to degenerative grades of language attrition. Taking into account the situation in general, she was not the last native speaker of the language. In 2010 there were around 80 speakers in an ethnic group of 1,660 people. Udehe is an almost dead language, like many others that meet the same fate under the pressure of international languages or, in many cases, of stronger neighbouring aboriginal languages.

Going back to Arseniev’s text, if we split it into parts and take a close look at each sentence, we realise how suitable it is for the field research concerning the phenomena that occur in this situation and the meaning of each one of them:

‘I met an old lady who remembered her native language’.

Apart from the design, the first step in field research is to encounter people with the life and linguistic experience that we want to know about and from whom we can obtain data to study.

We are told that the old lady remembered her native language. Knowing a language is not the same as remembering it and even less the same as using and practising it with other speakers. However, as we shall see, her memory of the language is not complete, it is not a passive knowledge of the language, but rather an incomplete one. (Everybody has ‘an incomplete knowledge’ of his or her language and uses it in a limited way, but that has nothing to do with the fact reported here.)

‘I convinced her to share her knowledge with me’.

The second step is persuading the ‘informant’ or ‘language consultant’ —that is how linguists refer to ordinary people who can provide them with linguistic evidence, which is familiar to them, whereas unknown or just inadequately known, at best, to the researcher—. The researcher must gain the confidence of the ‘informant’, as well as that of other community members who also speak the language, with the informant’s help. The researcher must turn speakers into a highly valuable source of information, since they own a knowledge that has become a scarce resource and, moreover, it is information that deserves something in return like, for instance, the expert knowledge of the researcher.

‘With great effort she could only recall eleven words’.

In fact, the old lady who ‘remembered her native language’ did not remember it that well. Someone may have told the explorer that the old lady did know her native language or another foreign language or, in other words, the Udehe language; or, probably everything happened by chance and in a more direct way. Remembering ‘only eleven words’ does not mean remembering a language, although those eleven words were the only ones that the old lady could articulate at that very moment, since her memory may have failed or those may have been the only words that she knew and remembered. She was, therefore, a rememberer. In fact, she could not even be considered a semi-speaker. A semi-speaker is someone who does not speak a language any more, or at least he or she does not speak it really fluently. However, he or she still has an imperfect passive knowledge and a great pragmatic and communicative knowledge of the language: he or she knows how to interpret different ways of saying and verbal genres of his or her community properly (cultural meaning, indirect meaning, etc.). This is quite different from someone who has gained a great deal of grammatical knowledge through formal education but out of context, that is, a person who knows how to speak the language, but does not know the uses and values of the natural communication between native speakers who still use the language ordinarily.

‘I wrote them down, they sounded like Udehe’.

Arseniev was not a linguist but ethnography was not completely unknown to him and it seems that he had some knowledge of the map of languages around that area. He could recognise the language thanks to his previous experience. This information is important since it tells us that he may have found people in other areas whose Udehe language was not so damaged. In fact, his contact with Udehe people was intense and it seems that he knew their language well. And he wrote the eleven words down, he recorded them, as a good ethnographer would have done. Nowadays, there is something called documentary linguistics, a complex sub-discipline that combines data collection with linguistic description and computer science. This sub-discipline deals with the access to knowledge of endangered languages and the documentation of several aspects, such as grammar and lexicon, in the first place, but also the rituals, traditional narratives or verbal art and other ordinary forms of communicative interaction. There are ambitious projects with generous budgets enabling young linguists to perform field research with standardised criteria for the notation, recording and transcription of the data collected. Afterwards, this data is sent to a trustworthy scientific institution where it is stored to be studied in the future, or even to be recovered by the descendants of the last native speakers of languages. It is obvious that this new type of documentary linguistics raises important ethical questions concerning the data ownership, copyright, the wishes of the speakers, who may not want a stranger to ‘take’ their ancestral knowledge, as well as the responsibility of both speakers and researchers. Apart from that, there are also matters relating to technology that cannot be easily predicted, like the ability to transfer the data from a current computer system to a future one, given that technological changes take place at a breakneck speed.

‘Fifty years ago, she didn’t know a single word of Chinese’.

Fifty years ago this person knew and used her inherited language —probably she only used her inherited language. The introduction of an unknown language, spoken by a more powerful expansive nation, had forced her to learn it in order to get used to the new ecological conditions so that she could survive in an environment of submission, diseases and addictions that would have been unknown until that time, like opium and alcohol, as well as poverty. The old lady’s native language was deteriorating more and more as she gained more competence (probably limited) in the new language, which was some variety of Chinese. As time went by, she needed more Chinese words to express herself while she was forgetting more and more Udehe words. If this was something that only affected her, it could be considered as an isolated issue; however, it is likely that the progressive decay of the language until its total oblivion and death would affect the whole nation.

How did it all start? Arseniev himself makes a revealing comment when he writes: “The Kusun River Udeheis employed Chinese labourers to do their farming for them. Their garments are a cross between Chinese and Udehei clothes, and they generally speak Chinese, reverting to their native tongue when exchanging confidences” (269). The “natives” he is referring to were Udehe people. In an ambiguous situation of submission to the Chinese, cultural hybridisation and survival, Udehe gradually became an invisible language and its use diminished. In the past there had been so many Udehe people that, “as Liurl colourfully described it, swans flying from the Samarga River to Olga Bay turned from a brilliant white to slate black owing to all the smoke rising from the Udehei yurts along the way” (269).

‘At that moment she had completely lost everything that belonged to her nation, even the language’.

The old lady had lost the community heritage of her nation, which had been passed down by several generations who changed and shaped it, as well as a unique portion of the human knowledge collected by all those generations.

‘Even the language’… Languages are considered to be something so deeply rooted in human beings that a language is the last thing that we lose and the first that identifies us as cultural (not just biological) beings, born in a social and natural environment and in a unique human group. Languages are the sense of identity of a nation and its members, like the voice for a person. Although the voice declines as the time goes by as a fact of life, a language does not disappear if there are generations that pass it on; it is transformed, but not replaced or lost spontaneously. In fact, no language can be replaced by another, since every single one is a particular categorization of reality, formally codified according to its grammar and vocabulary, and all of them accomplish the various expressive roles speakers need. In addition, languages are a way of expressing awareness of the natural and cultural environment, a knowledge shared by the whole of society.

Vladimir Arseniev left us with a living proof of an ancient and local phenomenon: language shift, or the replacement of one language by another due to a particular correlation of power between human groups. What is new about this phenomenon nowadays is the fact that it is taking place globally at an unprecedented and accelerating pace.

I remember a Korean girl once telling me how people in her country are responsible for taking care of their ancestors from at least three generations ago (the maximum that a person can know in a lifetime) and celebrate them with family meetings, meals, donations and prayers. This may happen in other nations apart from my informant’s. If that is the case, we should ask ourselves the following question: How will the ancestors understand the prayers if they are spoken in a different language than the one they knew, most probably the only one they knew?

[*]A previous version of this text, under the title in Catalan “En memòria dels darrers parlants d’una llengua”, was published in Quaderns-e de l’Institut Català d’Antropologia 19(1): 235-240. The text has been revised, avoiding technical apparatus. I am grateful for permission to reproduce the article. I am also indebted to Miquel Cabal, Arseniev’s translator into Catalan, for his comments and suggestions.