Blue Bottle Gin is losing its tongue! What happens when languages die?

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Below is an excerpt from the October 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about Blue Bottle Gin from Guernsey. Every month, Craft Gin Club Members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins and gin complements accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of information about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.

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Strolling around the quaint towns and windswept croplands of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, you’ll hear the common sounds of the ocean waves knocking against the cliffs, the seabirds squawking as they float on their thermals, and the occasional sputtering of Blue Bottle Gin’s Tuk Tuk passing by to serve the islanders their G&Ts. You’ll also hear something not too familiar, something distinctively human… a language… a European language… but one that you will have trouble placing. For, despite the fact that English is the Bailiwick’s official language, the island, like many regions in Europe, has it’s own historical language known as Guernésiais or Guernsey French. 

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But whilst you’ll hear the foreign tongue and see signage written in it, Guernésiais is in danger of dying out. As of the census of 2001 a mere 1,327 people, or 2% of the island’s population, spoke the language fluently with 70% of those people already over the age of 64. Although 14% of Guernsey dwellers queried in the census claimed some understanding of the language, only 1 in 1,000 of the island’s young claimed fluency, a sure sign of a dying language. 

Disappearing Dialects

Guernésiais is far from the only language on Earth in danger of extinction. Depending on which source you consult, the number of existing languages spoken around the world number between six and seven thousand. Fifty to ninety percent of those are expected to disappear before the end of the century with one language dying approximately every two weeks. 

This is an acceleration of a trend: over the past century it is estimated that approximately 400 total languages disappeared as their last speakers died, or one language every three months. The trend has already severely concentrated the use of languages communicated globally: about half of the world’s population speak one of the top ten spoken tongues. 

Furthermore, it is close to impossible to gauge the level of danger that many languages face as those that speak them fluently often don’t speak them openly. Academics estimate that there are about 100 known languages around the world whose fluent speakers can be counted on the fingers of one hand with the BBC citing the likes of the Ainu language in Japan and Yagan in Chile. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists nearly 600 languages as “critically endangered”.  A well-documented case of the 2008 death of an Alaskan woman, Marie Smith, brought the end of the region’s Eyak language, one that linguists have linked to the Yeniseian languages of Siberia inferring that the language traveled with nomadic tribes across the Bering Strait some 15,000 years ago.

But why does this matter? Surely, some would argue, a concentration of languages could only lead to a more understanding and peaceful world as a virtually monolingual global population could understand one another better, leading to a smoother transition to an increasingly globalised world - a fair argument and one that is to a large degree occurring. If you were to graphically portray the evolution of languages, you would see that they follow a Darwinian-style curve: as in nature, survival of the fittest applies. 

As people come together, every aspect of their lives - political, social, economical - depends on the capability to communicate with those around them. With over half the world’s population now living in high-density urban areas, fringe languages stand little chance of survival as everyone begins to converse in one tongue. Linguists have even shown that migrant parents to these cities decline to teach their children their native language as they feel it could damage their prospects to higher education, better jobs and an overall prosperous life, goals that are the very reason they emigrated in the first place.

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From a cultural perspective, however, with each dying language expires distinct ways of interpreting the world as well as regional and tribal traditions. In the case of Eyak, Smith brought with her to her grave terms such as c’a, a word for a certain kind of mud prevalent in the area or kultahl, a term that meant simultaneously feather and leaf thus connecting the birds and the trees in which they lived. Even her Eyak name, Udachkuqax*a’a’ch has a long and decidedly beautiful English translation: “a sound that calls people from afar.” 

The Siberian Tuvan population, for another example, holds on to their particular style of slaughtering sheep with the word khoj özeeri, a term that also means “kindness” and “humaneness” due to the quickness and painlessness of the act. An article in National Geographic quotes a Tuvan student explaining that killing an animal in any other fashion would lead to an arrest for brutality, a testament to the importance the Tuvan culture places on the relationship between humans and animals, a relationship that defines a person’s character. 

Saving Slang

In the case of Guernésiais - which traces its roots back to the Norman language and was shaped primarily by both English and French over the centuries - and its potential extinction, the already modernised island stands to lose much less than other, more isolated peoples around the world. Guernsey French, like the large majority of most of the world’s languages, did not develop as a written language and the spelling of words is to this day disputed, words that to a French speaker would on paper look like a bastardised version of their language. 

But unlike those other thousands of endangered tongues, the oral stories of Guernsey were recorded by scholar Edgar McCulloch in the late 19th century and published in the 600 page tome, Guernsey Folklore, in 1903. Within the pages of Guernsey Folklore, the reader can explore the mythology associated with the island and its landmarks, mythology that requires an familiarity with the island but stories that can be told just as well in modern languages. As for traditions such as the Tuvan’s khoj özeeri, equivalent Guernésiais terms would have disappeared long ago due to the higher rate of intermingling amongst European cultures over time. 

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Today, a number of efforts are underway to protect the traditions and cultures that would be lost with each dying language. The aforementioned UNESCO Atlas of Dying Languages speaks of the “need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity among policy-makers, speaker coummunities and the general public.” In 2012, Google launched its Endangered Language Project, taking a technological approach to preserving vanishing patois by opening a platform for “individuals working to confront the language endangerment by documenting, preserving and teaching them… (and playing) an active role in putting their languages online by submitting information or samples in the form of text, audio or video files.” 

Guernésiais even has an official protector: the Guernsey Language Commission. Launched on May 9th, 2013 - Guernsey Liberation Day - the Commission strives to raise “awareness of the language and assisting the existing groups and individuals that already do so much to celebrate and teach the language.”

Just like we’ve witnessed the rise of the safeguarding of bio-diversity, the protests against sending jobs overseas and a host of other societal issues that arise with globalisation, the movement to protect languages is likely to proliferate. How effective those movements are, especially as people in ever-growing cities enjoy the convenience of speaking the same language as others, is to be determined. But in the meantime, the curious traveller and language buffs will continue to find excitement in learning new terms. So as you share your Blue Bottle Gin with friends and family, raise your glass and say, “À vot’ sàntaïe!”, Guernésiais for “Cheers!