Language Log has been getting me excited about the documentary The Linguists for quite some time now, but the DVD costs $300, and it didn’t seem to air on any local PBS stations. Luckily, the movie is finally available (for a short time) online at babelgum.com. I strongly encourage people to watch this movie, as it’s a lot of fun, even if there are a few issues I have with it.
The movie follows two linguists, UofC PhD Greg Anderson and K. David Harrison, as they travel to Siberia, Bolivia, and India to document fast fading languages (Ös / Chulym, Kallawaya, and Sora, respectively). It’s fun to see fieldwork done around the world like that, and the two researchers have a pile of enthusiasm for the project that comes through onscreen, pushing the narrative ahead.
Yet while I value the work done on recording fading languages, the movie drifts into a more sentimental / essentialist justification of language preservation, which is something I’m not quite as sure is as obviously good thing. On the one hand, Anderson and Harrison excellently set a political / moral case—a stronger one than the academic case, which I (already) totally buy—for why the languages should be preserved: Chulym and Sora have been suppressed by the majority cultures, often affixing a sense of shame to the village language. “People are choosing to abandon their native language,” Harrison complains (rightly, probably), “because they perceive that they’ll have more economic advantages.” This is an old story, of course—and one that fuels, for example, Lithuanian nationalism—but still a valuable one. (Kallawaya, on the other hand, is a secret language with limited transmission because of intellectual property built into knowledge of the language!)
On the other hand, the problem emerges when we go from this justification for language preservation to a sense that is more sentimental, mystical, and tied to an idea of a cultural heritage or history that precedes the individual.
In Siberia, the linguists have their 50 year old prize subject Chulym speaker tell a story to a classroom full of people of all ages. Harrison next tells the crowd, in Russian, that they have all just heard a story “на чулымском языке.” The local children—the very children who did not inherit the language for whatever reason—are encouraged to illustrate the story for a small book. At this point, the movie is moving more from linguistics to the production of cultural artifacts/literature, so I’m academically qualified to whine a bit further…
“A true community project,” Anderson calls this picture book, the first book ever published in the Chulym language. Anderson then explains what a thrill it is “watching people reconnect in essence with their history,” and Harrison adds, “their past.” But what history? What past? It’s interesting that the movie winds down on these notes—the linguists stomp through a graveyard looking for “Chulym surnames,” as intertitles tell us that four of the Chulym speakers interviewed for the movie (and for research) have died in the intervening period, ramping up the emotional investment and sense of urgency. Finally, the movie closes with the 50 year old Chulym speaker, explaining, in Chulym, that he always loved the language, and that his mother explained to him that the Russians should be allowed to speak Russian, and the Chulym, Chulym.
It’s a touching moment, but Harrison’s presentation to the children illustrators, in which we hear him say “на чулымском языке,” reminds us of the first section filmed in Siberia, where the linguists interview a nearly deaf woman in her 90s. Harrison asks her to say something “на чулымском,” and then it’s a girl, perhaps the woman’s great granddaughter, who shouts to her, “скажи что-нибудь на чулымском языке! На чулымском языке скажи!” Sure, she’s shouting since the subject to be interviewed is nearly deaf, but it’s an interesting twist—the girl certainly does not seem to be particularly historically tied to the language the old woman is getting ready to speak, and she seems almost annoyed by the imposition these Americans are making. Furthermore, in fact, we don’t even get to hear the old woman speak Chulym—the film immediately moves to uncover the revelation that the linguists’ driver is a fluent speaker of Chulym.
What I mean to address here is that the sense of “reconnection to [one's] history”—whatever that means—is a weird way to close an (ostensibly) scientific movie. The children, allegedly returning to their Chulym roots are doing so by illustrating (extra linguistic cultural production) a story told to them (I imagine) via translation into Russian. Considering that it’s very likely that Chulym language suppression is precisely part of the history of the Chulym people and their cultural identity, I find it contradictory to include this scene (complete with echoes of the earlier scene) as some kind of argument for a deep essential Chulym identity that’s crackable only via the Chulym language. What’s the point of this weird essentialist position, other than the aim of bringing out the worst armchair Sapir/Whorfians in all of us?
Anyway, if this is too subtle a point, I’ll leave this as a starting point for a completely different argument: in one section of the movie, Harrison (I think), says something along the lines of:
I don’t see how you can justify devoting your research career to the syntax of French (a language with millions of speakers), when the skills that you possess could help document a language that is going to go extinct within your lifetime.