Last Sunday morning I woke up to frost: a web of fine icy lace had spread across grass, leaves, flowers and cob webs. I was so excited about this crisp frost morning after weeks of not real winter that I went for a walk across Tower Hamlets Cemetery. As expected the frost had done its magic to the old graves, rusty iron works, wingless angels, wonky tombstones, garlands of ivy and bushes growing wild all across the graves. I was amazed by this bunch of plastic flowers that still had a crust of real, crisp and white frost around the edges
It reminded me of the German word ‘Eisblume’ for the patterns the frost painted onto the windows in my childhood. And then I remembered an article about specialist vocabulary in indigenous languages around snow that I had read some years ago and kept, probably for this day. I dug it out when I got back home and re-read that Nick Hunt reported for Resurgence that the Sámi languages spoken in Lapland/Finland have thirty words for snow. Each word expresses very specific qualities essential for people that need to survive in an environment as extreme as the Arctic. But unfortunately their languages might not survive: the article was based on the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages which confirmed a ‘mass die-off’ of indigenous languages all over the world with a lot of languages (among them the 3 Sámi languages) considered ‘endangered’. According to UN estimations 1 language disappears every fortnight and by the end of this century we will have lost half of the languages currently spoken on the planet. And with them we will loose specialist knowledge such as the conditions of snow and the patterns of frost.
In fact, since Resurgence published this article in July/August 2009 (4½ years ago or some 52 months ago or 104 fortnights ago) approximately 104 languages will have vanished from the earth.
With no grave to remember them…