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Language Loss

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 19, 2008 2 Comments

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When all the people of the world finally speak the same language and commune in the same message or the same norm of reason, we will descend, idiot imbeciles, lower than rats, more stupidly than lizards. The same maniacal language and science, the same repetitions of the same in all latitudes–an earth covered with screeching parrots.

Michel Serres (1997), on language loss

***

A thick, gray fog shrouded a chilly Berkeley evening a week ago, as a dear friend and I ventured into a local Korean barbecue joint. Over plates piled high with fiery, pungent Kimchi; mayo-draped greens; medium-well Korean barbecue; and glutinous, sticky rice, my friend recounted a profoundly moving tale of language loss.

The narrative comes from an autobiographical moment in a keynote address titled Mémoires francophones. The renowned French philosopher Michel Serres delivered it at Stanford in the 2006 conference, Empire Lost: France and its Other Words.

Like the best of stories, it is simple.

Serres grew up speaking a regional language in Agen in southwestern France. Eventually, he became one of France’s leading intellectuals, and in 1990, this “transplanted Gascon in Paris,” who did not learn French as a first language, became a member of the prestigious Académie française, the official academy invested with the authority to “regulate” the French language.

There was a tragic side to his ascent. Over time, he became more and more isolated and alienated from his first language. It became a language confined to mostly intimate interactions with immediate family members. As the years wore on, his parents passed, and the number of people he spoke with in his first language dwindled…and one day, his brother, the last remaining person he spoke to in his native tongue, died.

In the keynote address, Serres spoke of the grief he felt then: a mourning not only for a loved brother, but a mourning for a language that “died” with him. The griefs were inseparably intertwined, and it was hard to tell which death/loss was more tragic.

***

Language loss is of enduring interest to me: I’ve posted on the topic here, here, and here.

I think
It’s because
I fear
I hear
The screeching parrots
Come…
.

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2 Responses to “Language Loss”

  1. Milton Friesen on: 20 December 2008 at 12:41 pm

    What a great post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and didn’t know that about Serres. I have heard similar laments from various people over the years (generally older) who fear the loss not only of the language but the cultural depth and texture that dies with it. But language is always changing, implying that some things persist and other end. I persist in learning more French and have studied Greek. I’d love to learn more Latin as well. My likely fate is to remain awkward in all of them in exchange for a degree of proficiency in my native English.

    I will post a brief comment on http://www.michelserres.blogspot.com (I run http://www.michelserres.com) and link to your entry. Thanks again. I will hear the screeching parrots all day.

    :M

  2. daveski on: 24 December 2008 at 12:21 am

    I, too, found this to be a really great post. What a moving passage by Serres! And how tragic his own loss of language.

    This made me curious to know, among other things, more recent news about the work going on in our own Linguistics department on language documentation and revitalization, http://linguistics.berkeley.edu/research/field/

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