My father recently asked me why I was learning Kristang, the endangered Portuguese Eurasian Creole that we feature in this issue of Unravel, if there was no one left to speak it. “Isn’t it a dead language?” he said to me over dinner. “What’s the point? No one else speaks it anymore.” He’s absolutely right—my Eurasian mother never learnt Kristang as a child, and her mother only remembers a sprinkling of function words.
No one speaks it anymore—what’s the point? In Singapore, but I’m sure in many other parts of the world as well, the question is often “How is this useful? Why should I care about it?” From the perspective of usefulness, this question is moot: endangered languages, often spoken by only a handful of speakers, have little to no actual linguistic utility. Think about it: if one considers languages as basically tools of communication, and your tool is outdated, out-of-shape, rusty or even broken in some places, then why bother with it? Get the new, vastly improved model, the one everyone else (or in many cases, everyone who is anyone) is using. Throw your old one away. It’s just a tool.
But to me, and to many others now struggling to protect and revitalise their dying languages, languages have never been simply tools: they are works of art. Sculptures. Compositions. Creations, not just mere tools, that have taken generations to mould and sculpt and bring to life. A tool is purely functional, but a language is a thing of beauty, a work of art, a monument to the culture and the hands that made it.
What do we, as intelligent, thinking beings, do with works of art? Sure, some of them may be outdated, out-of-shape, mouldy, or even ruined in some places, but we don’t discard them. We preserve them. We protect them. We appreciate that they offer unique, often hidden windows into the human condition that many of us may not have otherwise recognised. And we marvel in their beauty, even if that beauty is but a pale shadow of what once was, because they were fashioned by us. By men, and women, and children—people just like us.
In this special feature, we present three endangered languages, three works of art, that are in varying stages of neglect and decay. Marc Michels describes Mawayana, an intriguing, shapeshifting language in the Amazon that has unfortunately already become more or less extinct. I explore Kristang, my own heritage language, as a language that is following in Mawayana’s footsteps, as its last community of speakers faces the possibility of dissolution. Finally, Emerson Lopez Odango offers us a glimpse of how languages like Kristang and Mawayana might bounce back from the brink of extinction with his piece on Mortlockese, the language of the Mortlock people that remains a minority language, but a vigorous and vibrant one, now well-protected by its own community. Also, here are two interviews in the Interrogatives section: one with the effusive and energetic Dr. Stefanie Pillai of the University of Malaya, who is leading efforts to revitalise Kristang, but in a way that complements, reinforces and gives back to its community, and the other with Prof. Peter Austin, the director of the Endangered Languages Academic Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and one of the most stalwart champions of endangered languages across the globe.
We protect endangered languages because they are, in so many ways, more than simple tools. They are the legacy of the people who went before us, whose voices and experiences shaped new ways of seeing the world—ways that, in our own crowded time, have often been forgotten. It is our hope here at Unravel that we will come to not just remember and protect, but cherish, some of these forgotten perspectives, and in doing so, refashion our own perspectives on the world in ways that are infinitely more diverse and fulfilling.
Kevin Martens Wong
Editor, Issue 3 Special Feature: Endangered Languages
17 May 2015, Singapore