Global Thesis Update: Indelible Identities: A Call for the Protection of the World’s Linguistic Diversity

By: Ted Shabecoff `12Ted Shabecoff `12

I savor the rich flavors of a buckwheat pancake filled with egg and goat cheese known as galette. Folk music plays lightly from the stereo in the family room. I can only understand a couple of the words that repeat in the chorus. No, the language isn’t French; it’s Breton.  The words sung over a bagpipe: ‘Breizh ma bro’ translate to ‘Brittany, my country.’

Every Sunday my host family gathered for a traditional Breton lunch of Krampouezh(savory crêpes), and Kouign Amann (Breton pastries saturated with butter) washed down with sistr (apple cider). While this meal of the local cuisine proved to be a highlight of my weekends, the words exchanged at the table remain even more memorable. The two most frequent conversation topics: the faults of Sarkozy and Breton identity.  Often family friends of the Coutards would join us for lunch and the face of my host mother, Danielle, would lighten up as she transitioned from the soft, unstressed words of French to those of the guttural, and emphatic Breton language.  This scene demonstrated the remarkable pride of the Coutards for their Breton heritage despite being a typical French family.

Like the Coutards my family prepares a special meal every week. Each Friday, my mother bakes a challah, a light and fluffy bread.  She lights the Sabbath candles, covers her eyes with her hands, and recites prayers in Hebrew and In Yiddish.  Unlike her, I cannot understand the words that have been passed down for generations.  I am oblivious to the words that hold they key to my ethnic heritage.  Since I have remained aloof to my ancestral language, I have lost a part of my identity.  And it isn’t just me; despite the importance of Breton to Danielle, my host brother Malo can hardly produce a sentence in Breton. We are both a part of the global trend that is linguistic erosion.

Imagine an entire culture and history simply vanishing from the face of the earth.   Such is the case as every two weeks a language ceases to be spoken.   In about 50 years half of the world’s languages will have disappeared.[1] As languages die, so do the unique outlooks of countless communities.  The death of language is a symptom of globalization: individuals around the world are forgetting the language of their ancestors, as economic, political and social pressures require them to learn a more common language.

The trend of language death may be interpreted as a reversal to the tower of babel myth; with the peoples of the world converging to speak one language perhaps individuals will better understand one another. Yet how can we, as humans, accept each other’s differences while promoting a mono-cultured, mono-linguistic world?   The English word, “diversity,” defined by Oxford as “the quality or fact of including a range of many people or things” must remain a universal value to ensure a peaceful world for the future.  Action needs to be taken to save these languages so that human thought remains unlimited, and so that the world continues to harbor a rich array of peoples, beliefs, and ways of life.


[1] Last Words: The Dying of Languages.” Worldwatch Institute. Web. 23 Jan. 2012. <http://www.worldwatch.org/node/500&gt;.

Global Thesis Update: Indelible Identities: A Call for the Protection of the World’s Linguistic Diversity

One thought on “Global Thesis Update: Indelible Identities: A Call for the Protection of the World’s Linguistic Diversity

  1. Lori Hashizume, Parent '08, Trustee says:

    This is a very astute observation, one that GFA’s Diversity Forum grapples with, but perhaps in the form of cultural/social identity and not necessarily language. I hope that GFA continues to foster a learning environment in which all members of the community — students, faculty, parents and staff — feel safe embracing their roots while at the same exploring and understanding the diverse backgrounds of others. You have expressed your thoughts in an articulate and beautiful way, Ted. Best wishes as you continue your education.

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