As we prepare to do a show on endangered languages, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of language and spirituality. This came up recently with my three-year-old daughter, who has been asking about death since we buried her fish in our back yard. We were driving across town the other day and she said out of nowhere, “Daddy, when will be my last day?” Meaning, When will I die? After a moment of panic, I decided to talk to her about various views of death from different religious traditions. But I quickly realized that she has no knowledge of the words “spirit” or “soul,” and so it was impossible for her to even grasp that concept. In her mind, she is just a body, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, in due time, the English language will give her a concept of the soul, and with it a whole new conception of her self.
Just learning a language is, in part, acquiring a spiritual worldview. And that would explain why religion and language have so often been intertwined in the history of Western civilization. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, the first book he printed was the Bible. A generation later, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, and he also produced the first complete translation of the Bible from the original into a contemporary European vernacular. In 1533 Henry VIII broke with Rome and created the Church of England. The result was a whole new English liturgy, with phrases that have since lodged in most English-speaking brains: “Till death us do part,” “Man cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower,” “In the midst of life we are in death,” and “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
When I think of all the spiritual concepts bound up in my own language, it’s hard to believe that (according to organizations like The Living Tongues Institute) languages around the world are dying at a rate of about one every two weeks. What conceptions of humanity and our place in the world are being lost? I’d be interested to know if any of you have learned any rare languages, and if so what unique ways do those languages have of ordering the world with words?