When seventy-five-year old Gyani Maiyi Sen dies, so will the ancient language of Kusunda. With Sen being the only native fluent speaker left in the world, linguists are rushing to Nepal to record her words. But is it really worth recording a dying language, or should we just lay it to rest?
Kusunda is what linguists call a language ‘isolate’ because it is not related to any other living language. This uniqueness makes it almost impossible to try to imagine what Sen sounds like when she speaks it. While the urgency to record her words may stem from intellectual curiosity, it also begs a social question: when a language is no longer spoken does it become sacred, or simply useless?
When I was about 10 years old my sister and I made up our own secret language. We would practice speaking it to each other religiously (usually when there was an adult to annoy in ear shot) and we soon became fluent. Unlike Kusunda, however, our nameless language was based on the English we already knew: without giving the secret away, we manufactured our language by simply adding one repetitive sound to the letters of our Mother tongue. While we thankfully no longer communicate in this feral-like way, our secret language was very important to us, and this is why I do not reveal it today.
If I choose to be a martyr and take my language to the grave it would probably have very little impact on future generations. The same could be said about Kusunda. Both my secret language and Sen’s are, after all, just a couple of whispers among a global cacophony of human tongues. The important difference being that Sen’s is steeped in human history – one that could be populated by hundreds, maybe thousands, of speakers. Like the last words heard at the end of a game of Chinese whispers, Kusunda is the last link in the chain; Sen the final player.
image via elmundo.es
To not record Sen speaking and explaining Kusunda (she also speaks Nepali) would, I believe, be both solipsistic and very foolish. If no one ever bothered to translate the Rosetta Stone, we would not have our modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Language binds us to the past and it is impossible to guess what influence it will have on the future. Understanding Kusunda is not just something for the history books either; it is also a kind of survival instinct. The attitude that a language no longer matters when you’ve got no one to speak to is a nihilistic one. The mute must be a very lonely person. Because even if the world is made up of a babel of human noise, it is the speaking, translating and recording of these that connect us all to each other.
While Sen may be the only known speaker of Kusunda, she is not necessarily the only person alive who can speak the language. Recently, for example, linguists determined that an endangered language spoken in Siberia is related to languages spoken by Native American groups. These people are oceans apart, yet their words serve as a bridge. Kusunda is an especially tricky case: it has no alphabet, making recording Sen an undoubtedly tricky task. How do you write a language if it doesn’t have an alphabet? The linguists that are going to Nepal to hear Sen speak and explain Kusunda are, therefore, the vital messengers. The esoteric recordings they provide will be the three-way telephone line between Sen, her ancestors and the rest of the speaking world.
By Zara Miller
Featured image via dictionary.com