Vanishing LanguagesIf you're reading this, you probably love words their origins and their true meanings. But for an engrossing love of language, we can't rival those people who spend their lives on words. I was reminded of this by several articles in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
First, in the WSJ Oct. 12, 2005, there was a review by Stephen Miller of Henry Hitchings' book "Defining the World." Hitchings tells of Samuel Johnson's task in writing his dictionary, defining in nine years 42,773 words. This was a monumental task, but nothing compared to the task of the staff at the OED, which took 49 years to develop definitions of 414,000 words.
Today, other language mavens are trying to rescue languages that are rapidly disappearing. In The New York Times, John Noble Wilford tells how linguists who have been re-creating Indian languages researched what words Chief Powhatan would have used when he spoke with John Smith. These words were used in the film "The New World." One of the scholars working on this task, which is called "language revitalization," is a Virginian, Helen Rountree, emeritus professor of anthropology at Old Dominion University. She's working on a dictionary of Virginia Algonquin.
The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 24 published "Scholar's Dictionary of Aztec Language May Take a Lifetime," an account by Bob Davis of Yale Ph.D. Jonathan Amith's work: "Word by word, Mr. Amith is creating an extensive archive of Nahuati, the language spoken by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish conquest and now the language of 1.5 million Mexican Indians."
Many indigenous languages are disappearing (another "benefit" of globalization). We owe a lot to those who work to keep them from vanishing from memory.
Incidental intelligence: According to Mr. Wilford's article, the following familiar words have come to us from Virginia Algonquin: raccoon, terrapin, moccasin and tomahawk.
Uh-OhReader Patrick Kelly has taken us to task for the headline on our story about the Chieftains' visit to Richmond (Arts&Culture, March 8). "Sorry," he wrote, "but this is a pet peeve of mine (surprising given my name, eh?): The holiday that falls on March 17 is NOT 'St. Patty's Day.'" We wrote that the group was coming for an "early St. Patty's Day," but we were wrong. According to the researchers at the Richmond Public Library, Paddy is an acceptable nickname for Patrick, but Patty is not.
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