And this is why comments rock.
Robbie Honerkamp, a US-based unix geek who’s spent years living and working in Nigeria, posted a comment to let me know about the Nigerian pidgin translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At first glance, I assumed this was a joke – I’d never thought of the United Nations being described as “naim be say all di kontris wey de for di world come unite to be one”.
But it’s one of the 332 translations available of the document, a list that includes several languages I’d never heard of, like Tzotzil, Yi and Bugisnese. Poking through the list, we rapidly get pretty obscure with languages like Even, a language of Yakutia and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, spoken by 7,170 individuals in 1979 (and probably fewer now.) But Even’s got nothing on Pipil, spoken by approximately 20 people in El Salvador and Honduras in 1987…
It’s fun to speculate on how the 332 languages represented here were chosen from the 6,000+ living languages spoken worldwide. Ghanaian languages are well represented, with translations into Akuapem Twi, Asante, Dagaare, Dagbani, Ewe, Fanti, Ga, all evidently written by the UN’s Department of Public Information. (If anyone knowledgeable about languages in their nation wants to take a look at the list of languages and let me know whether their local language sphere is as well represented, I’d be very interested in having more data points…) Some languages are not widely spoken, but politicially important, like Inuktitut, widely spoken in Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut. Others are unfamiliar to me, but widely spoken, like Siswati, spoken by 1.7 million people in Swaziland.
Why Nigerian pidgin? The accompanying text to the translation tells us that pidgins and creoles are used for interethnic contact, where people from different language groups come together and communicate in a third language where they both have some competence. If the resulting linguistic mashup gains new speakers, it’s a creole, like Haitian Creole. If not, it’s a pidgin. In this case, “Nigerian Pidgin English, which, though not being considered a Creole, also has native speakers, is a mixed language drawing from English and different African languages. There is no unified standard or orthography. It is used in novels, plays, radio, poetry and becoming more and more important as a language.”
Staring at this collection of translations, it’s tempting to imagine a future where this set of web pages serves as a Rosetta stone for languages that have disappeared. Will we conclude that Garifuná speakers were a stiff, bureacratic people, lacking any sense of poetry because our main record of their language is a passage group-written by hundreds of UN diplomats? Or will it help us decipher documents yet undiscovered? Or serve as a reminder of how strange and diverse the planet was in the late 1900s, before we all became fluent in Mandarin/Hindi/English creole?
Thanks for killing my morning, Robbie. And thanks to anyone who ever comments on this blog…