Re: Languages of the world

From: Tim Greenwood (
Date: Mon Mar 28 2005 - 16:25:44 CST

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    I posted this mail in September 2000. The question about death of a
    language makes it worth reposting (thanks to the archives). The full
    article is available on

    They are the final two paragraphs from the essay "The Last
    Word. Can the Worlds Small Languages Be Saved?" by Earl Shorris in the
    August edition of Harpers magazine.

    " I think now that every language has its Ellam Yua. The consolation the old
    men sought existed only in Maya. Every epithet implied a unique set of
    attributes, every sound described a unique Being. It is not merely a
    writer's conceit to think that the human world is made of words and to
    remember that no two words in all the world's languages are alike. Of all
    the arts and sciences made by man, none equals a language, for only a
    language in its living entirety can describe a unique and irreplaceable
    world. I saw this once, in the forest of southern Mexico, when a butterfly
    settled beside me. The color of it was a blue unlike any I had ever seen,
    hue and intensity beyond naming, a test for the possibilities of metaphor.
    In the distance lay the ruined Maya city of Palenque, where the glyphs that
    speak of the reign of the great lord Pacal are carved in stone. The glyphs
    can be deciphered now. Perhaps. Only perhaps, for no one knows what words
    were spoken, what sounds were made when Pacal the Conqueror reigned. It may
    seem cryptic or even Socratic to say, but, in truth, only spoken words can
    he heard.
     There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the
    comprehensive Porrúa Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish
    translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya,
    proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear
    from the consciousness of the earth."

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