The Unwritten Word
Just contemplating nature of language and writing itself is one of the most fruitful writing inspirations available. Stephen King has compared writing to telepathy in that, without saying anything, without showing you anything, a writer can, for instance, describe a table that is sitting in front of them, and the reader will picture the table in their mind. The table might not look exactly the same in the writer’s mind and in the reader’s. Maybe the reader will picture a round table while the writer sits at a square table, but the basic idea is communicated all the same, from the writer’s mind to the reader’s, without any need to actually show the reader the table.
Most of us are able to take this for granted. According to Ethnologue.com, of 7,105 known, active languages, only 3,570 have a developed writing system. There are languages that exist only in the spoken form, entire cultures without writers.
One of the most interesting examples of an unwritten language would have to be the story of Ayapaneco, a language spoken in the small Mexican village of Ayapa. At one point, a popular news story had it that the language was down to only two living speakers, Isidro Velasquez, and Manuel Segovia, both senior citizens, and that these two guys hated each other, meaning that the language would probably die with them. The language was never actually down to just two speakers, but the number of speakers were dangerously low, we’re talking fewer than a hundred people here.
Right now, there is an ongoing effort to preserve Ayapaneco. The Instituto Nacional de Lenguas Indigenas is helping the community to keep the language alive by educating younger members of the village.
You’ve likely heard of Code Talkers, the Navajo people who helped the war efforts in World War II by utilizing their language as radio code to transmit messages for the Allies. This plan worked so well because there were no publicly available Navajo dictionaries at the time. The language also differed quite a bit from European languages that the Germans would have known. These efforts only used the Navajo language as a resource for codewords. Reading their code sheets wouldn’t teach you how to speak Navajo, only how to speak in military code.
The Navajo language has, over the years, developed a written form using the modern English alphabet. However, there is no traditional form of written Navajo.
Written languages aren’t exactly bulletproof. Any language that is forgotten will die out, no matter how much writing is left behind. Pick up a book written in a language that you don’t understand and the only use it’s going to have for you is keeping your coffee table from wobbling. Writing is a form of telepathy, but it only works if the reader understands you. A language lives only so long as its speakers keep speaking it.
Gilbert S is a writer and artist who lives in rural New Mexico with his wife, and his dog, Sir Kay.