Stephen Leonard in Greenland.

Having just returned from a year spent documenting the language and culture of the remote Inughuit community of north-western Greenland, Dr Stephen Leonard describes how he witnessed first-hand the manner in which globalisation and consumerism are conspiring to destroy centuries-old cultures and traditions.

We, human beings, rent the world for a period of approximately 80 years. It is our duty to future tenants to leave the house as we found it.

Stephen Pax Leonard

The 21st century is the make-or-break century for cultural and linguistic diversity, and for the future of human civilisation per se. An unprecedented and unchecked growth in the world’s population, combined with the insistence on exploiting finite resources, will lead to environmental and humanitarian catastrophes as mass urbanisation meets fundamental problems such as the lack of drinking water. The actions that we collectively take over the next fifty years will determine how and if we can overcome such global challenges, and what the shape of the ‘ethnosphere’ or ‘sum of the world’s cultures’ is to look like in years to come.

After having spent a year in a remote Arctic community which speaks a vulnerable, minority language and whose cultural foundations are being rocked by climate change, it is clear to me that the link between environmental and cultural vulnerability is genuine and that the two are interwoven. Cultural practices of the Polar Eskimos are based on a history of survival strategies in one of the world’s most hostile environments. Their language and ‘way of speaking’ is a representation of that. When the sea ice disappears, their stories will eventually go with it.

We, human beings, rent the world for a period of approximately 80 years. It is our duty to future tenants to leave the house as we found it. The conservation issue goes beyond everything else and should therefore be at the heart of every policy decision. To do otherwise, would be to live in the 20th century. At present, linguists predict that over 50 per cent of the world’s languages will no longer be spoken by the turn of the century. Instead of leaving the house in order, we are on the road to the fastest rate of linguistic and cultural destruction in history. Languages die for many reasons, but the current trend is driven by the juggernaut of the homogenising forces of globalisation and consumerism which seems unstoppable and whose language tends to be the new universal tongue, English.

I am a romantic and romantics are nowadays always disillusioned because the world is no longer how they had hoped it to be. I had gone to the top of the world and had wished to find elderly folk sitting around telling stories. Instead, I found adults and children glued to television screens with a bowl of seal soup on their lap, playing exceedingly violent and expletive crammed Hollywoodian video war games. Time and time again, I discovered this awkward juxtaposition of modernity meets tradition. Out in the Arctic wilderness, hunters dressed head to toe in skins would answer satellite phones and check their GPS co-ordinates.

Consumerism has now made it to every corner of the world. Some Polar Eskimos may live in tiny, wind-beaten wooden cabins with no running water, but Amazon delivers. Most 8 year-olds who live in Qaanaaq and the remote settlements have the latest smartphones. Media entertainment will, however, never be produced for a language of 770 speakers because it is loss-making. Technology, be it mobile phones, DVDs or video games may support the top 50 languages maximum, but never more than that. Some languages are not suited to these technologies: Greenlandic words are too long to subtitle and to use in text messaging. Polar Eskimos tend to send text messages in Danish or English because it is easier.

As the world embraces the synthetic monoculture of populism and consumerism, linguistic and cultural diversity risk being erased right across the world. For consumerism to operate efficiently, it requires as few operating languages as possible. That way, the message is consistent and the producer’s cost is minimised. This globalised consumerism is the product of a system which is based on an addiction to economic growth. Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell, and yet it is difficult to hear US presidential candidates or EU officials talk about anything else. Some politicians speak oxymoronically of ‘sustainable growth’ but the combination of a rocketing world population and finite resources is the recipe of ‘unsustainability’ par excellence. Growth has become an abstract imperative that is driving humanity to destroy the ecosystem upon which life depends. If we can shake off the growth habit and focus on the ‘local’ and sustainability for its own sake, minority languages will have a chance to prosper providing they engage with new digital media technologies. The Internet represents surely the best opportunity to help support small or endangered languages and yet 95 per cent of Internet content appears in just 12 languages. The Internet offers also a chance to move away from television which is largely responsible for the spread of a phoney, idiotic form of entertainment culture where production costs are too high to support minority languages.

I have never met anybody who is indifferent to the elimination of biodiversity or the protection of endangered animal species, but linguists and anthropologists are still being asked to defend linguistic and cultural diversity. In doing so, it should be remembered that a language is so much more than a syntactic code or a list of grammar rules. To treat language as such is to reduce it to its least interesting features. When languages die, we do not just lose words, but we lose different ways of conceptually framing things. For the Polar Eskimos, there is no one concept of ‘ice’, but over twenty different ways of referring to various forms of ice. Through different distinctions in meaning, languages provide insights onto how groups of speakers ‘know the world’.

A language is a collection of statements about the world delivered in a multitude of voices set to a background of music. There is a difference between being able to speak a language fluently and to speak a language like a native. The latter requires first and foremost a mastery of the language’s paralinguistic features – in the case of Polar Eskimo, a rich and never random repertoire of sighs and groans and a specific mix of intonation patterns and gestures accompanying particular words and phrases. To be able to speak a handful of languages as a native, you have to be able to act and act well, reproducing exactly certain collocations of words to the rhythm, gestures, flow and timbre of its speakers. This is always more important than just having a large vocabulary or putting the verb in the right place. Each language of the world requires a different voice. When we lose a language, we lose an orchestra of voices that permeate the mind. As well as knowledge and perceptions of the world which are built into local language varieties, we lose the music and poetry of words and speech which elicit so much pleasure. There should be no need to defend linguistic diversity. It and the power of language is something to be celebrated. Without it, the world would be utterly dull. After all, who wants to listen to just Beethoven, when you can enjoy Rachmaninov and Shostakovich too? Not that there is any chance of the Polar Eskimos listening to Beethhoven, they are too busy indulging in virtual reality Playstation war games whose only poetic content is ‘fucking pacify him’.

Stephen Pax Leonard is a Research Fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is primarily interested in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology.

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