Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How Times Change; Sobering

I just read Encounters with an Angry God, by Carobeth Laird. It details her time with John Harrington, an interesting character who did a huge amount of work cataloguing the then-dying (and now dead) languages of Southern California. Sobering to think that, in some cases, native languages vanished in the space of a century and he was the only person to write them down before they were gone. Laird's account of the man is interesting but is to be viewed with some suspicion, since after all they were divorced. (If this were fiction we would assume "unreliable narrator".)

A pre-Kerouac California road trip. And Harrington was documenting more than his partying.

The book's best value is probably as an artifact preserving what life was like in California a century ago, and this is why I'm mentioning it in my outdoors blog. In 1915 the travails of crossing Tejon Pass were still considerable, and even by car, a trip from San Diego to what is now the Grape Vine was not undertaken lightly. To this day our knowledge of the language of the people that lived there is so scant that we're not even sure what language family it was in. We think it was Uto-Aztecan, i.e. related to Aztec, Paiute, Luiseño and Shoshone.

Can you imagine if two centuries from now, somebody finds your drivers license in some rubble and dusts it off and says, "What language is this?" And all anyone can say is "I don't know. It looks like it's related to Finnish. Or maybe German." How times change.

No comments: