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To save indigenous languages, a poet is asking others to destroy their own
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An unwish list. Click to enlarge 

Is this what they mean by deconstructionism? Click to enlarge

If you could pick a word to live without for the rest of your life, what would it be? Could you live without ‘perpetuate’? Or ‘moonlight’? Would you leave behind a word you didn’t want to face up to anymore?

The exercise, though it sounds frivolous, is one that Nancy Campbell, a UK-based poet and environmentalist, takes seriously. For the past two years, she has been asking people to consider that question as part of The Polar Tombola, a project, drawing to a close on April 2 in Bristol, that seeks to shed light on language loss in the circumpolar North.

“The question brings home a sense of empathy for language loss, one word at a time. But it’s a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along,” she says.

SEE RELATED: Hymns to the language

Others, she points out, are only too glad to give up words they don’t like, either for obvious reasons (‘war’, ‘hate’) or for reasons only a psychologist could love (‘compass’). (The top picture at right shows more words people have purged.)

Nothing, aside from a signed piece of paper, prevents participants from rediscovering their abandoned word. (Who could ever find a suitable synonym for ‘sibilance’?) But, in real life, once a language is gone, there is no getting it back. And it is this that Ms Campbell’s game seeks to get us to think over.

“When we hear about change in the Arctic, it’s more often related to climate than culture. But globalised culture and business is causing rapid changes in the region.”

Since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year. Things can only expected to get worse: a 2008 study by the Arctic Indigenous Languages Symposium, made up of the six indigenous groups considered permanent participants on the Arctic Council, found that all of them were concerned about their respective language’s future.

SEE RELATED: Thanks to Millie, the language has not been lost

Stopping decline is something that indigenous groups themselves are putting effort into, but with even the strongest of the langauges spoken by only relatively few people, success is not certain.

Perhaps the most worrying sign of all is that Kalaallisut, the main dialect of Greenlandic, and the country’s official language, is deemed ‘vulnerable’ by the UN, meaning that while most children speak the language, its use may be restricted to certain domains, such as at home.

(Greenland's other dialects fare even worse: East Greenlandic/Tunumiit oraasiat, 3000 speakers, and North Greenlandic/Avanersuaq, 1000, are ‘definitely endangered’, meaning children no longer learn the language as their mother tongue at home. Qavak is already gone.)

In Ms Campbell’s exercise, before participants give up a word, they are asked to learn one in Kalaallisut. This, she says, is to give them a sense of what we stand to lose.

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Even if teaching people random words could save a language, this is not the point, Ms Campbell underscores. Instead, she is hoping that making people aware of indigenous languages can be the first step towards making them useful for a world that is at risk of losing the worlds they describe.

In the past, she notes, scientists (she names the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body, as an typical example) have tended to rely on their own observations, or those made by other scientists. This, however, excludes traditional knowledge as a source, and, in so doing, overlooks the wealth of information that Arctic languages can convey about things like sea ice or plant and animal life.

That this is changing, will benefit science; Ms Campbell believes. “There’s a growing recognition among scientists that traditional knowledge can provide insights, and, indeed, that it’s particularly useful in ‘remote’ locations where there are no other means of observation. That knowledge, passed on down the generations, is enshrined in the language.”

SEE RELATED: In Nunavut, a less fatalistic word for cancer

Ms Campbell calls her event The Polar Tombola because the random manner in which participants are assigned words resembles the prize game that is a fixture a funfairs and summer fêtes. (The words are drawn from a giant snowball, pictured, bottom right.)

But, if she resorts to gimmicks and humour get to people to come and play along, the hope is that they will walk way realising language loss is no game.

“As an environmentalist I began to wonder how future scientists will study the Arctic ecosystem without access to the knowledge of generations enshrined in the region’s languages. As a poet, I wonder what happens to an individual’s experience of words when their language begins to disappear.”

It’s all fun and games until someone loses their language.

All photos: Nancy Campbell