George Papagiannis, External Relations/Information Officer from UNESCO, delivered this speech at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Opening Ceremony.
When time is short, I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln and his speech at the battlefield at Gettysburg for the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery 1863.
Lincoln was not the headliner.
The headliner spoke for two hours.
Nobody remembers a word he said.
When Lincoln started talking, the press wandered off, figuring they could get their pull quotes in an hour or so, and meet their deadlines.
Two minutes after he began there was applause. Lincoln was finished.
Ten lines seared into the consciousness of the American people.
The Power of language. A stirring example of less is more. But, when we talk of endangered languages less is…simply less.
Less is fewer stories to be told.
Fewer love songs to be heard.
Fewer hearts to be broken…and healed.
Fewer spirits to be lifted.
Fewer whispers to be uttered.
Fewer smiles from tales of wonder.
The ebb and flow of life loses its current, the tide ceases, the waters are still.
And in that stillness, we mourn.
As languages die our sense of place erodes, and our collective wisdom is diminished.
This cannot be a good thing.
I will never know the stories of those who threaded their lives on words spoken in Akkala Saami in Russia, in Aasax in Tanzania, in Ubyh in Turkey or Evak in Alaska. All of these languages are dead. And with their deaths generations of life’s lessons lost.
And some might even say who cares? Travel the world and you will hear the same story told by different peoples all claiming to have the rights of authorship.
But that is why we must preserve language because it is in the complementarities of the stories told in one language and another by one people and the other that we find that there is more that unites us than divides us. It is on these shared experiences—culture–that we see ourselves in the other.
We listen, we learn, we grow.
In Guarani, a language spoken in Paraguay, “nye-eh” has two meanings. It is the word for “word” and the word for “soul.” The Guarani Indians say those who lie betray the soul.
From this I take one message: Treasure language, every word, every soul.
Thank you very much…thank you to Smithsonian and National Geographic our partners in One World, Many Voices, UNESCO is honored to be here with you…to our Hungarian brothers and sisters and our African American brothers and sisters, thank you for sharing your rich and evolving cultural heritage.
Enjoy the Folklife Festival.