Lost meanings in a dying language

May 19, 1995

Having written a grammar and a phonology of an extant unwritten European language, I found David Charter's piece (THES, April 21) of interest.

Istro Rumanian is spoken by fewer than 1,000 natives of two groups of villages in Istria in what, until recently, was Yugoslavia. It is predominantly Romance, deriving from Rumanian, but is heavily slavonicised. I believe this language to be doomed soon, not only because of the lack of mutual support between the two groups of less than 500 speakers each, but because of the low esteem in which it is held by the natives of the adjacent villages.

I would question Pagel's view that the sounds one learns as a baby alter one's brain. Surely the fact that speakers of Japanese find it difficult to differentiate between "rice" and "lice" is a case of "conditioning" of the brain, rather than alteration of it by the process of trial and error in acquiring the key sounds in their language which make the semantic distinctions. A comparable difficulty for English speakers is to "hear" the difference between the purely contextual variation in English of the initial phoneme of "keep", "calm" and "cool", which convey a difference in meaning in other languages.

Were it as Mr. Pagel suggests, the speakers of Istro Rumanian, living in two small and tightly knit communities, and needing for their survival to be bilingual, (in many cases tri-lingual), would be mildly schizophrenic!

As it is, they are nothing of the sort, and take this linguistic dexterity in their stride.


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