Response to "Threats to the Samoan Language."

A discussion – via letters (three) to the Editor of the Samoa Observer –  of threats to the Samoan language, has prompted my response (below).  Among some of the points raised by the “threats” author were that the Samoan language should be “untainted, vivacious and potent,”  the need for the church to be responsible for perpetuating and reviving the language as well as blaming the English language as “the most detrimental influence” on the existence and survival of the Samoan language.

Languages that do not change, die

Dear Editor:

I have been reading - with a bit of uneasiness - Mr. Ivara’s three-part (so far) discussion of the threats to the Samoan language.  I fully understand his points though I do not necessarily agree with his somewhat extreme and tenacious approach, suggestions and faultfinding.  Like Mr. Ivara, I do not want to see the Samoan language extinct or become obsolete.  I am therefore in favor of smart and strategic intervention and programs to reinforce the viability, practicality and use of the Samoan language.

Condemning the English language as the “most detrimental influence to the existence and stability of the Samoan language,” is neither constructive nor resourceful. It may be a fact, but it’s useless in the context of our aspirations to preserve and perpetuate the Samoan language.  Moreover, that’s quite harsh to beshrew something that we, as a people, have adopted more by choice and necessity than by imposition or mandate.  The irony, however, is that Mr. Ivara has contempt for the English language and yet he used it “extensively” and almost exclusively in his letters.  He may have done that to reach his intended audience of Samoans who write and speak English (like him?), yet still, there is something insincere, if not insidious in using English to brand English.  It reminds me of one travesty about swearing among the Samoans.  E palauvale loa se kamaikiiki, faapea loa le koea’iga, “Sole, soia e ke palauvale lou [bleep].”  Ioe ua faaaoga le upusa e kaofi ai le upusa.  (Basically using profanity to berate swearing.)

Furthermore, Mr. Ivara faults the English language for the deterioration of the Samoan language and then in the same breath, he lauds the efforts of the missionaries and other foreigners who used English grammar rules to analyze, construct and explain Samoan grammar.  That service has obviously, and ironically, led to a better understanding of the Samoan language that people like Mr. Ivara have displayed and demonstrated.

The intent of this letter is not to favor English over Samoan; rather it is to propose that the two can and should co-exist.  There are concepts, notions, items, beliefs, etc. that are inherent and/or common among our people that are not fully understood and/or explained using the Samoan language, only with English.  English is also the universal language for business, technology, government, etc., and so we should not be naive in its denigration.

Language is part of the social paradigm and therefore changes with time.  Generally, anything that resists change is likely to be exterminated. Organisms have to adapt to a new environment or suffer extinction. Such is true with language which needs to “socialize” and consociate for survival. This principle is perhaps more applicable in today’s fast-paced world in which change and/or adaptation are necessary for endurance, permanence and longevity.  So along with our native desires and nationalistic attitudes about preserving our Samoan language, we should also allow it to change and adapt where necessary and needed - syntax, semantics, vocabulary, etc.  With language, change is not only necessary but inevitable.

The English language itself has gone through phases and periods of change. There’s the Old English, Middle English and Modern English. Writings, like Beowulf, from the Old English period are hardly intelligible to modern English speakers.  The changes and adaptability of English - oftentimes borrowing from other languages - have led to its durability.
The Samoan language also needs to change and adapt otherwise it will suffer untimely death or rapid extinction.  For the seeming hardcore approach Mr Ivara has towards preserving the Samoan language, keeping it “untainted, vivacious and potent,” -  including his quandary with English - perhaps the only way to achieve such objective is for the native Samoan community to stay isolated and closed to the outside world. We know that is impossible.  Considering today’s global society and its nascent homogeny, hastened by technological advances, insularity and isolationism would only spell genocide and linguicide.

In support of Mr. Ivara, however, I, too, was disappointed with the changes made in the seventies notably the elimination of the diacritics (macron, apostrophe, glottal stop/break, etc.,). Native speakers had fewer problems with contextual reading and pronunciation.  On the other hand, second-language speakers, like children of Samoan immigrants (NZ, US, Australia, etc.) have a hard time learning proper pronunciation, hence the language, without the diacritics.  These Samoans living abroad have a significant role to play in perpetuating and preserving the language and it’s important that they are taught the correct methods, skills, properties and elements of their native language.

And so in our efforts to preserve the Samoan language, we should not do it independent - or at the expense - of the English language, or any other language for that matter.  Remember that  Greek, also, through the Bible (NT), has given us the word “areto” (artos) - and others - which has become an important word in our spiritual parlance.  “Falaoa” just does not capture the essence, depth and nuance of “bread” as it relates symbolically to Christ.

Ma le fa’aaloalo lava,
LV  Letalu

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