Wade Davis on Language and Culture

(Transcript from Wade Davis TED talk) – Now, a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities. 

And of those 6,000 languages, as we sit here today in Monterey, fully half are no longer being whispered into the ears of children. They’re no longer being taught to babies, which means, effectively, unless something changes, they’re already dead. What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your language, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors or anticipate the promise of the children? And yet, that dreadful fate is indeed the plight of somebody somewhere on Earth roughly every two weeks, because every two weeks, some elder dies and carries with him into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue.

And I know there’s some of you who say, “Well, wouldn’t it be better, wouldn’t the world be a better placeif we all just spoke one language?” And I say, “Great, let’s make that language Yoruba. Let’s make it Cantonese. Let’s make it Kogi.” And you’ll suddenly discover what it would be like to be unable to speak your own language.

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