Most linguists undoubtedly know the story of Thomas Bridges (1842-1898), a missionary who worked among the Yamana Indians in inland Patagonia. Apart from trying hard to convert them, he studied and recorded their language for over thirty years, describing its sounds, writing a grammar and making note of particular syntactic details. And as if that weren’t enough, he also noted down around 32,000 words.
Two months before he died, he met the explorer Frederic Cook, who was on his way back from the South Pole. Cook promised to have the manuscript printed in Europe. After Bridges died in 1898, it took years before anyone heard what had happened to the manuscript. There was no news from Cook, only at second hand. It turned out he had taken the liberty to have the manuscript published in Brussels under his own name, and given it the title Yamana-English Dictionary. The dispute caused by this forgery was legally settled in favor of the Bridges family, who were then free to do with the book as they seemed fit. That proved to quite problematic, because the academic world made its own requirements. Bridges’ phonetic transcription was deemed inadequate and had to be adjusted to the current scholarly standards. That took many years and when finally, in 1914, the job was done, World War I broke out. After that, the book seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. In 1939, however, it suddenly resurfaced in Poland, and the family then offered it to the British Museum in London. But when they were just about to send it off, World War II broke out. It wasn’t until 1946 before the book actually ended up in the museum. Unfortunately, the Yamana were extinct by then. Fate was cruel: when they were still alive, the dictionary was missing; by the time it was found again, the tribe did not exist anymore. Bridges had worked thirty years of his life on a product that was only useful for academic research.
Why this story? CIPL has decided to do more for endangered languages, regarding this as part of its principal activities. However, since our own resources are insufficient, an additional financial policy is needed, and CIPL has opted for crowdfunding. In order to prepare for this thoroughly, we need comparable stories to the one about Thomas Bridges. After all, laymen interested in language will want to know exactly how a language is under threat, and a veneer of emotion, with its great power of persuasion, is always welcome.
That is why we call on the readers of this newsletter to help us by sending us a deeply human story of a people in danger of losing its language because it has fewer than a hundred speakers left. We will use all your stories to raise funds for the adequate recording and description of languages under immediate threat of becoming extinct.
May we count on your cooperation?
Piet van Sterkenburg, Honorary Secretary General CIPL