Philadelphia, PA. Language can be consciously eradicated or meander into extinction. Mussolini’s desire to “Italianize” the German- and Ladin- (different from Ladino) speaking Südtirol region represents one example of the former. Another instance took place in North America through residential schooling aimed at flattening indigenous cultures as well as through the World War I era quashing of German schooling. Often, though, a language simply fades away with the passing of generations, slow-walked into extinction by sociocultural and economic trends. In either scenario, localists should embrace and defend languages facing the threat of extinction, especially as one language vanishes every two weeks. When a language perishes, we lose far more than a lexicon.
Living with my maternal grandparents during my undergraduate studies at McGill University granted me access to many stories about their upbringing in Portugal’s countryside (which I have written about in a review of Michael Brendan Dougherty’s book, My Father Left Me Ireland). Often around dinnertime, between grueling classes and late nights studying, they regaled me with tales from Ribatejo-region villages, conveying the rugged richness of rural Portuguese life without much material wealth. While the whole country contains only half the population of the New York City metropolitan area, Portugal is a veritable tapestry of regional specialties. Recently, I discovered Terras de Portugal, an online encyclopedia providing detailed history for nearly every Portuguese locality. Flipping through tabs on my family’s ancestral homes, I came across the page on Minde, a freguesia (parish or municipality, depending on your translation) of about 3,000 in whose textile mills my grandmother labored from her preteen years onward. The town’s mills once buzzed with activity, staffed with young girls and women like herself. For my grandmother, Minde represented a multiple-miles-long daily walk, a flood of taxing work, and omnipresent markers of class stratification. For the rest of Portugal though, the town was renowned for blankets and (according to my grandparents) a unique shade of blue fabric pigment.
Minde’s specialties were not only commercial, as I found out that day. In fact, this minuscule Portuguese town sustained its own language, known as Calão Minderico (which I refer to as Minderico). This sociolect, or a language particular to a social class or profession, was developed by local textile merchants in the 18th century and persisted through the 20th century when it began to decline. Minderico’s vocabulary consists primarily of Old Portuguese words stitched into a unique linguistic creation meant to protect Minde’s merchants from interlopers and to allow local sellers to communicate in boisterous markets. Of course, its speakers also spoke Portuguese, allowing them to travel and live elsewhere. Such creative methods were common before complex intellectual property regimes; according to my grandfather, local tannery workers added extra weights into input chemical buckets to render final color creations impossible to recreate. Who needs a patent or trademark when you have a sneaky method in case somebody finds the secret formula? In Minde, particularized knowledge protected the distinctive crafts which made the town stand out.
Minderico was not spoken or even intelligible outside of Minde and its surrounding villages, where it evolved differently to incorporate lived realities. According to Ferreira, the word for “priest” in Minde was francisco vaz, named for a local priest, while the word in Mira De Aire was raso, or “full” in Portuguese, because the priest there enjoyed filling himself with alcohol. Eventually, the language expanded beyond the merchant class and became ubiquitous, but only in Minde, Mira De Aire, and Serra De Santo Antonio. There is nothing more quintessentially ‘Minde’ than Minderico, but the language and the particular identity it is bound up with tragically face extinction today. A study from professor Vera Ferreira, a rare detailed exploration of this forgotten tongue, notes that only about 150 people today actively speak Minderico, with just 23 being fluent speakers. Worryingly, most remaining speakers are elderly. For this reason, according to the Endangered Languages Project, Minderico faces rapid decline and merits the terrifying label of “severely endangered.”
Upon encountering this atrophying regional language, I immediately dialed my grandmother to ask what she knew about Minderico. She gave me some background knowledge of the area, but only two words stuck in her memory after all these years: pataeiras (breasts) and folha de costa (bacon, literally translating in Portuguese as “leaf of back”). Marking her memory of the language was the fact that her bosses at the mill spoke Minderico to avoid being understood by the poorer girls who traveled from other villages. Language takes on associations through its connection to place, developing complicated relationships with those who encounter it.
Even though my grandparents’ life in Portugal was marred by poverty, child labor, a bare-bones educational system, and various other injustices, they still lament the downfall of Minde and small industrial centers like it. Factory owners in my grandma’s day sent their children to Lisbon or Coimbra for professional degrees. These professionally educated children of factory owners felt little obligation to invest in their hometown’s trade and rarely returned to keep up the family shops. The liberalization of the Portuguese economy since the 1970s failed to reverse this harmful brain drain. On one hand, the European Union generated capital inflows through foreign investment, but on the other, textile jobs, as in America, declined in the face of foreign competition and rapid mechanization. Outsourcing and mechanization became business-school buzzwords, leaving entire regions to rot. With the shuttering of local mills and the downfall of Minde’s economic specialization came depopulation and the rapidly approaching disappearance of Minderico. The recent growth of leather warehousing at least pays homage to the tanneries that once dotted the Ribatejo, but while my grandparents find some hope in shiny new warehouses near the highway, the fabricated metal boxes simply aren’t the same. My grandparents witnessed the departure of artisans, tanneries, and small factories and their replacement with metallic nodes in a sterilized global economy. This is not to say my grandparents romanticized an economy that chewed them up from childhood, but they feel the absence of a certain uniqueness and local pride, an ethos extirpated by the globalized marketplace.
Despite its historic linkage to commerce, saving Minderico is not about salvaging the town’s bygone economy, but about protecting its invaluable heritage against the flattening tendencies of globalized capitalism and more broadly, technique. Jacques Ellul defined technique as an obsession with finding means to abstract ends like economic growth and an accompanying never-ceasing drive for efficiency and rationalization. Once Minde’s sociolect lost its initial social basis and proved unable to serve the ends of modern globalized commerce it met the same fate as “art and all that was formerly ‘useless’ or ‘gratuitous’”: it had to “submit to the necessity of ‘usefulness’” (Presence in the Modern World). This trend foregrounds how totalizing Ellul’s concept of technique is. A society built around technique discards the elements of culture which do not serve its ends. Instead of a facilitator of global commerce, local particularities are viewed as useless figments of the past, as chains from which men must be freed. As the Red Tory thinker George Grant remarked in Lament for a Nation, “Modern society makes all local cultures anachronistic. Where modern science has accrued its mastery, there is no place for local cultures.” The mindset of progress requires the constant expansion of markets and outlets for global capital, and this “continual change in institutions and customs,” underpinned by the ideology of progress, undoes traditions and cultures everywhere. Grant’s concern lay with the defeat of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in Canada, which symbolized the defeat of Canadian nationalism by Americanizing, flattening globalization. He highlighted aspects of culture under siege by unrestrained market forces. Those who bemoan the depressing demise of Minderico must do the same, recognizing the anti-cultural trends inherent in economic liberalization. While developed for commerce, the sociolect transcended the language of the marketplace and came to embody the cultural identity of a small corner of Portugal. Perhaps we should save endangered languages not because they support GDP growth or any rationalized end, but because they articulate placed culture and showcase the particularities of a locale.
Languages and their associated cultures often leave an imprint after their disappearance, usually an aspect congruous with the place where they once flourished. However, I worry about what Minderico might or might not leave, considering its tiny footprint in the first place. Unlike some other vanishing languages, Minderico did not transmit meaning-soaked ancient lore or spread across empires. It was a small-scale mercantile sociolect, and one that could stoke class divisions even in its tiny realm. Nonetheless, precisely because it was so rooted in Minde’s local circumstances, adapting vocabulary in reference to specific people, it merits revitalization as a centerpiece of the once-flourishing Portuguese countryside. In part, Minderico became locally ubiquitous because it developed in concert with its environment. The town of Minde sits secluded in a valley and next to a polje that sometimes floods into a lake. Therefore, according to Prof. Ferreira, isolating local geography allowed for the “evolution and preservation of Minderico” and its “development as an independent language with its own system and particularities, unintelligible to Portuguese speakers.” Insofar as community and culture grow from the land and relationship people cultivate with that land, the preservation of endangered languages is imperative as an act of reunification. Addressing our society’s brokenness begins with restoring the connections between culture, earth, and the body, so eloquently called for by Wendell Berry throughout his career. Both the earth and traditional culture demand an ethic of nurture, not of exploitation (The Unsettling of America). Language conveys heritage, placed wisdom, accumulated knowledge, and often untranslatable concepts, making it a crucial component of any revitalized embodiment. Scholars even find that when a language dies, so too does a spirit of “community identity, collective purpose, and self-determination” it once represented. Language uniquely fuses the elements integral to placed human flourishing.
Finally, COVID-19 poses another danger to Minderico’s survival, one whose impact is not entirely clear yet. COVID-19’s higher mortality among the elderly, who often comprise the last speakers of vanishing languages, may make it a “language killer.” Indeed, “the risk of suddenly losing the elderly among us—and along with them, their memories, legacies, and immense cultural heritage—is disturbingly high.” The same dynamic in Minde scares me. In November 2020, an outbreak ravaged a local senior center, causing 11 deaths and 149 cases. If anything, this dynamic should reinvigorate our drive to protect endangered languages in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and as the Tablet article quoted above sums up, “before assimilation and the slow march of time efface these languages and the last of their speakers.”
I’m not qualified enough, nor pessimistic enough, to foretell linguistic apocalypse. Esperanto (for the better) never did take off, and approximately 6,500 languages still exist today, enough to fill countless linguistics departments. I know better than to pine for the recovery of Minde’s historic industry. However, it encapsulates why I worry about neoliberal globalization’s flattening of everything. I deplore the McDonaldization of unique cultures and traditions around the world. Learning more about a language in my folks’ backyard helps me appreciate other endangered languages and their speakers. Throughout the world, sociolects protected certain groups’ interests, from Rotwelsch in Central Europe spoken among the poor, a “combination of German, Yiddish, Hebrew, a smattering of Romani … , Czech, and Latin,” to a linguistic mélange employed in Cairo by local goldsmiths.
Surely, the trends I discussed are not positive. Nevertheless, as Christopher Lasch pointed out, our moment must be met with a spirit of hope, not pessimism or optimism, those shallow mirror images of one another. Hope implies a trust in life paired with the acknowledgment of tragedy and loss, the key ingredients preparing one for “intelligent action.” A quick internet search reveals multitudinous examples of intelligent action by those working to transcribe and preserve dying languages. Each linguistic cultivator devotes themselves to this task because they recognize the trends threatening their unique patrimony. Notably, the Endangered Language Alliance represents an unprecedented effort to chronicle such tongues around the world. Additionally, activists in various communities take this task on themselves, from my friend Eli’s work to save Koasati to those laboring to save Jewish languages spoken by dwindling numbers of people.
Thankfully, efforts to save Minderico began in earnest around 2009. Around this time, investments were made to document the language and recommence its teaching to new speakers in the area. That’s not to say the journey has been easy; Professor Ferreira’s 2015 valiant attempt to fundraise nearly $15,000 USD for language preservation activities fell far short, raising just $1,930.94. Moreover, cultural tensions have emerged both between generations of speakers as well as ‘old’ and ‘new’ speakers over the language’s relation to modernity and perceived authenticity. The policing of boundaries and apprehensions of different groups are likely normal outgrowths of language revitalization efforts, but they should not discourage those efforts. We localists must join the fight to save endangered languages, if only because they present us a way to practice stewardship, rebel against the abstractions of technique and global commerce, and save our world’s cultural heritage.
Image by Andrew Figueiredo. Serra de Aires, a mountain near the town of Minde.