Tonight, I watched a PBS special titled “Linguists”. It was a documentary on dying languages throughput the world. I found myself immediately drawn and more than a little touched by what I was seeing. I, admittedly, cried. One language in particular was called Chulym. Linguists, Greg Anderson and K. David Harrison, interviewed and recorded 20 speakers. They estimated there may be between 35-40 fluent speakers out of a community of roughly 426 members. The youngest fluent speaker was 54 at the time of filming (2008). It is spoken in a small Siberian region north of the Altay Mountains, in the basin of the Chulym River, a tributary of the Ob River. All speakers are bilingual in Russian. In Soviet times, speakers of the language suffered as children. They were discouraged from using their language and punished in a process of language devalorization. The youngest speaker said as a child his mother told him “Chulym was Necessary”. She said, “Let the Russians speak Russian, Chulyms will speak Chulym”.
As a black woman in America, I have been forced to speak Caucasian-Americans perception of the American English language. It oft times a weight on my shoulders. The constant struggle to think as I speak and enunciate and articulate. I am working in my consciousness to speak “good” diction to ensure that my level of intellect is perceived. You know, not letting the Black Out. No one wants to be considered a dumb nigger . As I watched this program, I watched various cultures purposely drop their native tongue to adopt the English language or the prevalent language around them. As an American who has befriended Latin, Indian, Caribbean, or Asian Americans who speak just about as much Spanish, Indian, Patois, or Asian as I do. Perhaps this opens the window of opportunity to us all, but what is the sacrifice. What must we lose… Cultural identity and heritage??? It is a superficial society that makes say different is less than. I go out and hear people say “Stupid Mexicans” and it is an abrasive chilling reminder of where we are in this world. I have lived outside the U.S. and it is not easy being in a place where few people speak your lingo. Mostly I was startled as I pictured various family and friends and their southern vernacular, dialects, and colloquialisms. I thought of how many people have heard them speak and viewed them as uneducated, brash people. Yes, it saddened me. I thought about waking up to a world where I could not say “Ya’ll or Mane”. A world where no one understood me. A place that enslaved me to this fake voice I project when necessary became the everyday. I frightened by the idea of never being able to take off the veil…
Clip by clip, I watched the linguists capture and record the dying languages. I heard their reverence and I acknowledge they respected them as languages and a people. Though the various languages contained words of the region, as a whole, it was its own. In America, my black talk is quickly relegated to jive, slang, ‘broken’ English.Demeaning Words. Negating Descriptions. Buffoonish Banter.
And yet, I have heard my grandmother speak to my in her beautiful southern mumbled cadence and listened to the God in her. The most profound truths I’ve ever known have come to me from the elders. Wise individuals and Visionaries that Jim Crow and Cheap wages did not allot schooling to or allow any form of secondary education. So I sit here on the couch mystified by language and how essential it is to a culture’s identity. I think of my own childhood and the disparaging remarks teachers made and their swift reprimands at the sounds of “ain’t”. I think of substitutes who favored the students with less ethnic names. I even, guiltily, recall opportunities presented to me because I spoke acceptable English. Opportunities that other classmates were better qualified and capable than me, but lacked the communication skills, therefore passed by. So I became the better representative because of enunciation. And I think of my younger relatives and their experiences in America, what cards the world will hand them. I wonder what the U.S. school system and society will do to them. For worse than me, some of them are black males. They are the ones, America euthanizes worst. I pray they do not feel less than and that they are not treated like second class citizens. Then I HOPE they learn to be chameleons- that they can change it up and shed their blackness to blend in. I do this with the wish that they’re presented with the best options and choices available to us “Good Talking” blacks.
Because I know what happens to those who don’t adapt.
and the sure death they must face. It is not a quick death but life long, like a poison. It is filled with struggle and strife, instability and hardships. It is a virus that kills a grown man’s pride and robs him of the ability to to take care of his offspring and home. It will destroy a woman’s strength and she bequeaths a sense of hopelessness and helplessness to her children. A cycle that produces a continuous flow of generations that don’t believe in dreaming. Kids who see American success via Rap Verses and Athletic Abilities, Dime Sacks, and Kilos. A new generation who measure success in Rims and Flat Screen TVs, Jordans and Coach Bags. Youth & Young Adults who learned long ago to hide their natural talents and view them as a waste because the popular society taught them self doubt and inferiority. It infuriates me. This division we’re given- minorities. This history keeps repeating itself from the big house workers to field hands. Barack Obama would never have reached such a pinnacle if he had spoken the EXACT same things with more urban inflections. In my mind, when he is around his people, he doesn’t sound like Mr. President. He speaks like “Barack’nem from up the street”. This theory does not need evidence, we know the answers are apparent.
I have heard some of the most articulate people of my acquaintance say stupid shit. dumb shit. ditzy shit. straight and utter bullshit. I’ve watch well spoken people steal pension plans and rob individuals of their entire savings and 401k. I’ve read about them embezzling. I’ve listened to them raise gas prices and health premiums. I’ve noticed them sell crack mortgages and stocks. Maybe, just maybe it’s time we base our opinions on people by what they say, not how they are saying it. It’s time we accepted others for who they are as a person and not how they look as a people.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
For additional information on dying languages
and to view the aforementioned PBS special
please visit, The Linguists