Week 5: On the Importance of Cultural Diversity via Languages for Space Exploration (Dyson 17-21) Nathaniel Troutman

Hello Friend,

It has been a long week, but alas, you don't read my letters to hear me complain. In what I've written you so far there have been two sources, the conversations I've had with Dr. N. via his lectures and those with Dyson through Disturbing the Universe. The past letter or two have been from Dr. N.'s lectures, this week I'll be going back to Dyson, albeit in a vein similar to what I talked about previously. If you recall a couple of weeks ago I wrote to you about the extinction of Africa languages, well today I will revisit that topic, this time under the light of Dyson's book (chapter 20 if you wish to make reference to it) instead of the Neiz Peirce Native Americans.

In chapter 19 Dyson was talking about the search for extra-terrestrial technology, a sign of extra-terrestrial intelligence, and during his conversation he listed Kardashev's three phases a society would go through as they colonized the galaxies. What I want to recall is not the work of the search or the expansion, but that Dyson said in order for the phases to traverse quickly it would require a very flexible society. I see that as being one that is constantly evolving to fit the needs of exploration of the space surrounding us. And if we now move into the next chapter Dyson talks about the role languages play in the evolution of cultures and societies. He says that a diversity of languages allows us as human beings to evolve rapidly in culture and society. That without it we would be as he puts a "clone" which is stagnate and leads no where as far as change and evolution are concerned. He also says that just as with the extinction of a species we are a made poor as a whole by the death of a language. With that he goes on to point out that we make great efforts to protect endangered species, but make little effort to protect endangered languages, and with them endangered cultures. For as Dyson says and I agree, language can support a culture and keep it alive under great oppression.

Language is at its heart for communication, why else would language exist except for the transfer of knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Its all about communication. With language culture is also communicated, either by traditions passed down orally or by the very essence of the existence of the language itself. Let me illustrate for you how language, its structure and vocabulary, is culture.

In Mozambique alone there exist some forty tribal languages. My father is familiar with many of them and with some of the languages in the surrounding countries. The tribal languages in southern Africa are in the family of Bantu languages and thus share some similarities in structure, much the same way that Romance languages share some similarities. Of the languages around the area in which my family lived (we lived in the city of Beira, Mozambique in the province of Sofala) my father has learned Cisena, the language of the Sena people. Of our family my father is the only one to learn any of the Bantu languages, I find them interesting and have had several conversations about them with my father, probing into their unique structure, a grammar entirely unlike that of my native English.

Here I will make a brief diversion from my planned to course to touch ever so briefly on the structure of Bantu languages. Bantu languages have a very noticeable characteristic of having a large number of classes, easily but questionably compared to genders in romance languages. A typical Bantu language has around ten classes with the exact number varying between language. But what is considered one of the most pronounced characteristics of Bantu languages is the extensive use of affixes. An affix is a form of the smallest element of a language with semantic meaning attached to other elements to form words. Or more simply stated something you affix to something else to change its means (although that is a very vulgar summery). For instance prefixes and suffixes are both affixes, and commonly used in the English language, but at a level of simplicity far below the complexities in which affixes are taken in Bantu languages. Each noun in a Bantu language belongs to a class and the affixes must agree in class throughout the sentence. For the sake of clarity and your sanity I will take a quote from Wikipedia on Bantu languages that illustrates the complexity of affixes: " In Swahili, for example, Mtoto mdogo amekisoma means 'The small child has read it [a book]'. Mtoto 'child' governs the adjective prefix m- and the verb subject prefix a-. Then comes perfect tense -me- and an object marker -ki- agreeing with implicit kitabu 'book'. Pluralizing to 'children' gives Watoto wadogo wamekisoma, and pluralizing to 'books' (vitabu) gives it Watoto wadogo wamevisoma. " I can only guess that I've completely confused you by this diversion, but my hope is to illustrate the richness that is implicit in other languages, and that this richness would in fact be a great loss to humanity were it lost.

Back to my original track with its own illustration. One thing that I find fascinating, that to me indicates quite well the idea that language is intrinsically culture, is the vocabulary of languages. The words a culture has, and sometimes just as interesting doesn't have, play large role in uncovering the culuture in which the language lives. In this case I want to draw your attention to Cisena language. Cisena in its purest form doesn't have analogues to our words to indicate time. There isn't the concept of hours or minutes, much less seconds. Instead, and I find this most fascinating, is that there are distinct words for the position of the sun! But of course, it makes so much sense. In a culture without time pieces (including such antiquities as hourglasses) there would be but one easy way to tell the passage of time, the progress of the sun across the sky. And just as interesting is that there are few positions indicated and time is indicated in a nonchalant manner. The exactness of time isn't required in the culture in which the language resides, and thus not provided for in the language.

By now I am assuming you wondering what my point is as this conversation, well, monologue, grows in length. My point is this, we can not continue to drive languages to extinction! We can't afford to lose the cultural diversity, for when we do we will find ourselves as a whole, all of humanity, stuck in time. We will become one of Dyson's clones, incapable of advancing at a useful rate. Without diversity we will not continue to evolve, we will not become the global society, yet still a diverse one, that is capable of passing through Kardashev's phases of civilizations in a timely manner. We will forever be stuck on this one planet, never to explore the magnificent universe in which we reside! That my friend is a sad thought. To never explore Creation beyond our little blue sphere, a mournful thought indeed.

In closing I ask one question to which I am sadly without an answer. What can we do to ensure the diversity of humanity? Nathaniel