Art

The Spectral Sounds of Endangered and Extinct Languages

Susan Hiller’s latest video, on view at Pérez Art Museum Miami, features 23 endangered or extinct languages spoken by the people who know them best.

Susan Hiller: Lost and Found, installation view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (image courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London, photo courtesy PAMM, photo by Oriol Tarridas)

MIAMI — The N/uu language (also known as Nluu, Nǁng, Nǁŋǃke, or Nǀuu), once spoken in South Africa, is endangered — it was even declared extinct in 1973, after becoming mainly displaced by Afrikaans and Nama. N/uu is comprised of five vowel-like qualities, and its consonants are primarily clicks (the “|” or “/” indicates a click); the tongue hits the roof of the mouth with a thick, vibratory sound. Two native speakers recall N/uu’s former ubiquity in Susan Hiller’s latest work, “Lost and Found,” a 30-minute video featuring 23 endangered or extinct languages spoken by the people who know them best, now on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. The screen is mostly black, save for subtitles and a reverberating green oscilloscope that rises and falls with the voices’ tones and textures. “Everyone used to get together and speak the language,” says one speaker. “We laughed in N/uu.” Says another, “The language lives within me and I’m thankful for it.”

In the early 1960s, Hiller was working as an anthropologist, conducting field work in Central America, but ultimately decided that she did not want, as she once wrote, “‘her research to become part of anthropology’s ‘objectification of the contrariness of lived events.” She ultimately turned to art to conduct the same sort of research but, perhaps, with more nuance. As such, Hiller’s multimedia installations frequently examine human psychology, the effect of cultural phenomena on the collective unconscious, and the collective unconscious itself. She’s studied dreams, automatic writing, horror movies, and accounts of alien abductions.

Susan Hiller, “Lost and Found,” video still (image courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London)

There is a kind of paranormal magic in “Lost and Found,” too, given that many of the spoken languages are now totally extinct, rendering their very sounds ghostly — in fact, Doris McLemore, the last speaker of Wichita, died less than two months before the exhibition’s opening. In the Wichita chapter of the video, she states, rather prophetically: “I am the only person left who speaks Wichita. I’ll be gone and they can still hear my voice.” As Hiller explained over email:

Sound waves actually touch our ears, so when we listen to a person talking we are literally touched by them. … I wanted to facilitate direct contact, empathy, person-to-person feeling. In any case, there is always an unacknowledged uncanny aspect to sound recordings, which don’t distinguish between dead and living voices. Perhaps this reminds us that we will also become ghosts someday.

Susan Hiller: Lost and Found, installation view Pérez Art Museum Miami (image courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London, photo courtesy PAMM, photo by Oriol Tarridas)

Hiller gathered these voices after, she explained, “looking extensively in archives, watching old ethnographic films, and searching online.” Speakers engage in conversations (in Berber/Tamazight), name colors and numbers (in Breton), sing their alphabets (in Salish, alongside a single, beating drum), and focus on the nature of language, lamenting the loss thereof. A speaker of Sauk explains: “God gave us the Sauk language…He didn’t give us English. The United States government tried to take our language. They took our children. They sent them to government schools.” Always, the green line wavers, creating a visual continuity that crosses continents and time — moving through the body, sound vibrations are consistent throughout the globe, our voices creating invisible oscilloscopes across oceans.

It is impossible to discuss language extinction without pointing to its causes, and it’s Hiller’s intention to foster enough empathy to make us curious about the impetus for language destruction. “I had become quite disturbed by the way the media pays attention when the last speaker of a language dies, without ever explaining how it came about that there would be so few speakers of a language left,” said Hiller. “Of course there is always either a history of deliberate suppression of the language by a dominant one, or a history of trauma to the speakers of a language through war or some other form of violence that explains the death of the language — but this is usually not mentioned.”

Susan Hiller, “Lost and Found,” video still (image courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London)

According to a study conducted at Mount Holyoke College for a World Politics course, minority languages are often “repressed as a first step towards repressing the actual minority.” Indeed, the more economically powerful a country is, the more rapidly its languages are lost, according to a 2014 study profiled in the BBC. The study’s lead author, Dr. Tatsuya Amano, found that “as economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres.” As such, of the 6,000 or so languages spoken throughout the world, more than half the planet’s population speaks English, Russian, Mandarin, Hindi, and Spanish, explains MIT Technology Review, which calls this a “perilous state of affairs.” Along with the next hundred most popular languages, this accounts for nearly 95% of speakers — meaning just 5% of the globe speak the rest. In Hiller’s video, a speaker of Livonian, a dormant Finnish language — the last speaker died in 2013 — bemoans that with the loss of language comes the erasure of ancestral history. The old speakers of Livonian, she says, “have been great seamen, great captains, navigators, and helmsmen … The youth are not interested in old times; some do not even know that their grandparents spoke Livonian.”

And yet, all is not lost. Several of the showcased languages, such as Hawaiian and Cornish, are revived; Palawa Kani is constructed to resemble the extinct languages of Aboriginal Tasmanians. Alex Kwabena Colon, a speaker of Garifuna, says, “I work with children, trying to teach the significance of Garifuna so that they don’t forget our roots, so they can be proud of our ethnicity.” In light of the loss of the Sauk language, for example, actions like these feel healing. Most significant — and touching — is that the simplicity of each language, with or without an accompanying story, is pleasurable to hear: a weather report in Navajo, a song about language in both English and Kaurna. Says Hiller, “In an earlier language work of mine, The Last Silent Movie, there was a sense of tragic inevitability that these smaller languages would all disappear…However, in recent years, the internet has created a situation where the speakers of many small languages can easily communicate with one another.” Toward the end of “Lost and Found”’s Gifuna chapter, Colon states: “Everyone who comes here comes with a language of their parents and ancestors.” And there are ways, it seems, to protect them.

Susan Hiller: Lost and Found continues at Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami) through June 4.

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