Saturday, October 1, 2016

Let's Ket Started!

I’m back!

            That’s right, it’s time for another season of Office Hours with the Brofessor: The Show Where I Say Things.  This fall we’re going to be revisiting the endlessly fascinating Ket language of north-central Siberia.  I thought that, first of all, it would be a good idea to review what we already know about Ket culture and life.  I did a video series about Ket a long time ago, but it was pretty cringeworthy, because I kept stammering and pausing, and it didn’t have cool stuff like my awesome title card.

            So let’s start by asking what I get asked a lot: what is Ket, and why is it important?  To answer this question, we need to take an epic journey across space and time, deep into the heart of Siberia.

            Now, if you ask around about Siberia, most people will say two things: it’s cold, and it’s where you go if you make Stalin mad.  Both of these are true, but there’s a lot more to this part of the world that’s actually really cool and fun to learn about.  Siberia is even home to its own indigenous people—unrelated to the Russians or Chinese.  These aboriginal Siberians are really diverse, just like the native peoples of the Americas or Australia.  These people have been there, speaking their own languages and maintaining their own cultures, for thousands of years before the Russians showed up.  These are nomadic tribal cultures which, because of their remoteness, we don’t hear very much about. 

One of these tribes is known as the Ket.  They’re important because their culture and language are really special and have a lot to teach us in the fields of linguistics and anthropology, even surrounded as they are by many other interesting cultures and languages.  For one thing, it’s much more ancient than any of the other languages around it.  For another, Ket bears an uncanny similarity to some of the native languages of North America.  Incredibly, it’s looking more and more like Ket represents one branch of an ancestral population that went on to migrate from Siberia to the Americas.  Unfortunately, young people are no longer learning this language, and within the next few decades it will probably have gone extinct as a primary medium of communication.

            The native peoples of Siberia have, sadly, run into a lot of problems in modern history.  The Ket are no exception.  Again, this parallels the challenges faced by indigenous peoples in America, Australia and elsewhere—among them crime, poverty, and alcoholism.  A history of economic exploitation and forced assimilation exists under the Russians, particularly under the Soviet regime.

As a result, a lot of traditional culture and knowledge was lost in the 20th century, and continues to be lost to this day.  Linguists, anthropologists and indigenous activists are running a frantic race against time to record and revitalize this ancient knowledge, not just in Siberia but all over the world.  If we don’t act quickly, the Ket and people like them will never have the opportunity to enrich the world by sharing their language—and by extension, the unique knowledge and way of life expressed thereby.

            I am a firm believer that respect for indigenous peoples includes respect for indigenous languages.  We cannot truly work in a way that respects and honors an indigenous culture unless we approach it, quite literally, on its own terms—that is, giving the language the study and respect it deserves.  Lots of people seem to think that learning Ket, or Warlpiri, or Lakota, is in some way a less worthy endeavor than learning French or Chinese.  But the fact is that all languages, even and perhaps especially the marginalized ones, have a lot to teach us and a lot to contribute to the human story.  Despite what our culture tells us, the West is not perfect and all-knowing.  It’s only one cultural tradition among many.  There are things modern science and history cannot tell us, but indigenous knowledge can, from medicinal plant lore to population genetics.  Traditional indigenous knowledge is just as multifaceted, useful and worthy of study as Western science, and cannot be fully understood without the use of indigenous languages.  By limiting ourselves to the world’s most spoken languages, we are in fact throwing away the vast majority of all human knowledge!

            So to arms, linguists!  To arms!  We rally to the banner of linguistic diversity.  Let not this treasure slip from our grasp.  Let not the foe of language extinction go unchallenged.  LINGUISTS!  WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION!?

            So on that note, let’s begin our study of Ket.

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