Tag Archives: Estonia

Livonian, an endangered language

The Livonian is a language of the Finnic family, closely related to Estonian and spoken in the region of Livonia, in the North of Latvia and South of Estonia. I first came across the language in March 2003, during a students’ exchange in the framework of the European Commission Youth programme organized by the students associations of AEGEE Zaragoza and Tartu (Estonia).

During that exchange, in one of the evenings we attended an especially arranged concert in a small bar. The place looked like a cellar. The group of music was introduced to us as the only group singing in the Livonian language. I know wonder whether that group was “Tuļļi Lum“. Sincerely, I cannot remember the name of the group that played that night, other than being presented as the only band singing in Livonian. On the other hand, Tulli Lum was already existing then and the singer studied music in Estonia… who knows.

The Livonian is an endangered language. In 2003, it was introduced to us as being spoken by no more than ~120 people in the World. Today the Wikipedia mentions that the last known native Livonian speaker, Grizelda Kristiņa, died in 2013. Livonian may be spoken as a second language by over 200 people, just about 40 of those with a level of B1 or upper.

In that night in 2003, we were explained that the language was being supported by some European institution funds. It was 10 years ago, I cannot recall the details. I guess they referred to the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages (EBLUL). The EBLUL was a NGO set up to promote linguistic diversity and languages. It was founded in 1982 and had close ties with both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, and was funded by both the European Commission and local and regional governmental organisations.

The European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages was closed by a decision of its Board of Directors on January 27, 2010. The main official reason given was that “the funding mechanism of such an organisational model [was] not suitable in current circumstances”.

I came across Livonian again when playing with the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which I discovered via Twitter. See a screenshot from the tool below, with the situation of Livonian, “critically endangered” and “revitalized”.

Livonian, UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.

Livonian, UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

I found this tool from UNESCO interesting. I suggest you try it out a bit.

In respect to Livonian:

  • I am happy for those people who played music for us that night back in 2003 that the language seems to be revitalized, though I have no way to measure or sense that.
  • On the other hand, and despite of the criticism that my position may create, and as I have mentioned in several conversations in the past: I see no wrong in letting the language die. I do not see the purpose in pumping public European funds so that a language can be taught to non-native students at some universities. I am almost glad to see that the EBLUL has closed down and clearly understand why “the funding mechanism of such an organisational model [was] not suitable in current circumstances”.

Surely, this is my opinion and I respect those who believe that each and every language should be preserved no matter what costs in the name of culture, historical heritage, and you name it. In UNESCO’s words:

Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.

My view: I am a native Spanish speaker thanks to some language evolution that meant that once almighty Latin is no longer spoken outside of the Vatican City, plus the extinction of who knows how many ancient languages spoken by my ancestors.

It especially strikes me the language used by UNESCO: “ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.” I guess it’s quite the contrary. Had a certain language been so essential to the survival of its speakers and its extinction would have not taken place (or am I getting something wrong with what evolution means?). 

Luckily, the same evolution process has happened in all parts around the world: allowing over 400 million of people to speak Spanish as a mother tongue and allowing us to fairly understand each other in several corners of the world.

Language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language is any specific example of such a system.

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3 wishes to Nosso Senhor do Bonfim

Just back from a two-week trip to Brazil, I’ll start with the first one of a series of posts. This one is about the last church we visited in Brazil: Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Our Lord of the Good End). This is the most famous church in Salvador de Bahia, therefore if you are interested in getting to know about its architecture, etc., you may check it on the Wikipedia.

When you approach the church the first thing that catches your attention are the thousands of little ribbons (fitas) of multitude colours attached to the entrance. Beforehand you have been offered those ribbons everywhere around the city. Prayers come to Bonfim and together with their prayer they take one of the little ribbons, and attach it to themselves (or the entrance, the benches or the candles in the church…) making three knots. Supposedly they are granted one wish for each of the knots, and they shall not remove the ribbon until the wishes come true.

Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim.

We all have seen youngsters wearing this kind of ribbons with the same wish-that-comes-true bond. Nevertheless, I find it curious that it is connected to the church. But on the other hand, two other examples that I found years ago come to my mind.

The first one is from a visit to Estonia in 2003. In the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, in Tallinn, the church also provided people with a piece of paper where to write their wishes to later deposit the paper in a box (after due payment, of course). I may still have somewhere at home one of those papers… obviously having taken the paper with me nothing was wished so nothing could be proved about the effectiveness Alexander Nevsky. I accept a scientific reprimand.

The other example is from Japan. There, close to Shinto shrines we can find Ema, or small wooden plaques where wishes are written upon and which are left hanging from special places destined to them. Again, you see thousands of them sometimes. I felt more scientifically obliged in 2008, so I used my chance to ask for only one wish; nothing personal, nothing related to love or richness (something that the genius of the lamp surely would have approved): I wished for Real Madrid to win the 2008/2009 Champion’s League… did I succeed? Well, that season Barcelona won the League, the Spanish Cup, Champion’s League, Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup, and Club’s World Cup… not very effective.

Shinto wooden plaques, Japan.

The idea of asking for that wish started out as an exercise to prove the existence of God and at the same time checking to which confession He felt closer… but that is to be explained in another post.

Going back to our business of today: Every superstitious person will argue that my wish in Japan didn’t come true solely because of making it public before it happened, but that is what all Japanese do! Once bitten, twice shy: this time I have been more cautious. I took my fita do Bonfim and attached it to the entrance iron wall and will keep silence about those wishes until they come true. Will they?

Me and fitas do Bonfim.

Well, I have a basis to think they will. Take a look at the pictures of the Room of the Miracles below. This is a room within the church where people who have seen their prayers’ effect leave a picture of themselves with a thank you note, a poem, an explanation of the miracle that occurred to them… and even wax or wooden replicas of different parts of the human body that were healed by Senhor do Bonfim… (this view is bizarre to say the least).

The Room of the Miracles.

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