Giving a voice to an endangered language: "L'Isola" project on Yonaguni

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, 250 languages have disappeared in recent years and 3,000 are currently endangered. When a language dies, a conception and a worldview disappear forever. This is what is happening to the Dunan spoken in Yonaguni, a small Japanese island off the coast of Taiwan, inhabited by a thousand people, where there is no work, no high school, no future. Of the people left behind, only a few still speak Dunan, a language officially declared to be in great danger of extinction: it risks ceasing to exist within a generation, as families leave the island and the elderly pass away.

The project L’Isola, by artists Anush Hamzehian and Vittorio Mortarotti, aims to collect the last remnants of this disappearing community, which buries its dead in large tombs reminiscent of a mother's womb and relies on yuta priestesses, who are able to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors. The project consists of a sound installation, an audio-video installation and the publication of two volumes, an artbook, L'Isola, and a Dunan-English dictionary. The project was supported by Fotografia Europea and CAP - Centre d'art de Saint-Fons (France) in collaboration with the Department of Asian and Mediterranean African Studies at Ca' Foscari. L’Isola will be exhibited at the 16th Festival of European Photography in Reggio Emilia.

In particular, the artists collaborated with Professor Patrick Heinrich, who accompanied them to Yonaguni several times over three years. He also edited academic essays for the exhibition catalogue and involved LICAAM students in the translation of legends, myths and songs from Yonaguni Island. We have interviewed him about his collaboration with the artists and with the students.

How was Yonaguni chosen? How did this island inspire this project? What kind of landscape are we looking at?

Vittorio Mortarotti and Anush Hamzehian, the two artists with whom I collaborated, wanted to tell the story of a language that disappears. They were interested in what lies behind a banal statement such as “a language disappears”. They thought that this could best be explored on a small island. I had been to Yonaguni many times before. The island is isolated, and its language is amongst those most endangered by extinction in Japan. As visual artists, Vittorio and Anush better understand what Yonaguni looks like. They say that Yonaguni is dark, and that it looks a bit like Scotland. The sky is often gray and threatening, but when you take a closer look, you notice the tropical vegetation and a population that walks with the relaxedness that is typical of the south. The list of things to be noted in the landscape is long. There is the ocean, wild horses that roam around freely, large numbers of abandoned houses, a forest that looks like a miniature version of the Amazon, two lighthouses at either end of the island and a military base.

You accompanied the artists to Yonaguni for three years. What was it like to have art and linguistic research work together? What was your experience as a researcher and mediator in this context?

I was surprised at how their project stayed open to changes and in a state of flux until the very last second. I guess Vittorio and Anush were surprised at how much one could learn about Yonaguni, but also at how little the others and I ultimately knew. Sometimes there simply was no knowledge present anymore. Our collaboration changed over time. They got to know more and more people from Yonaguni and worked with translators or learned to communicate directly with people of Yonaguni. We spent many evenings together eating local food or drinking beer on deserted beaches at night, looking at the stars. We learned that we were engaged in similar activities. I used social science methods to understand sociolinguistic and cultural changes, they used film, photos and sound recordings to do this. 

Can you give us some examples of the Dunan dialect? What is its specificity? What can we discover about this community through language? 

Dunan is one of eight languages in the Japonic language family. There are many features that are unique to Dunan. Its sounds are distinct, and so are its grammar and its words. If you want to say “where are you going” in Japanese, you say doko-e iku-no? In Dunan, the equivalent would be nma-nki hiru-nga? The word order of Japanese and Dunan is the same, and both languages use particles such as e or no in Japanese or nki and nga in Dunan for similar grammatical functions. However, the words and morphemes are obviously different, and so is their sound-structure. You can learn a lot about Yonaguni through its language. For example, Dunan has one word, dama, to express both mountain and forest, because there is only forest on the two mountains of the island. Hence, there is no need to distinguish between the two. It’s the same! To give you another example, while I was collecting my first documentation, I asked a consultant to introduce herself in Dunan. She was puzzled. Self-introduction is a nonsensical activity in Dunan, because everybody knows each other. Every language is the product of its sociocultural and geographic environment. Vittorio and Anush understood this from the start.  

From your perspective as a researcher, what is the relationship between art and language? What role can art play in the recovery of endangered languages?

The academic view on things is restricted for the sake of precision. You need to select and focus on core aspects. On the other hand, art has no scientific claim, but this allows for more freedom. While neither my work nor that of Vittorio and Anush will save Dunan, together we can draw attention to it. We can address, each in our own way, what it means when a language disappears. Art can capture your emotions, something that is usually not done in academic work. At the start of our collaboration, I visited some elderly people I knew in Yonaguni. Vittorio and Anush came along and filmed us. At the end, they would ask the person I had talked with to remain still and quiet for what seemed an uncomfortable long time. At first, I had no idea why they would do this. Then I saw their recordings – I could see my consultants without their language! There was a deep sense of sadness in seeing them like this. Also their dignity when being so quiet almost jumped at you. No academic work can create this sensation.

You decided to involve your students in the translation of Yonaguni tales, legends, and songs. What is the importance of involving young translators in this kind of project?

The involvement of students was initially not planned. At one point Vittorio came to see me at Ca’ Foscari. I was teaching Japanese sociolinguistics that day, so I asked him to briefly talk about his project to my students. When Vittorio and Anush became interested in folk songs, myths and legends from Yonaguni, it became clear to me that I needed some help. I asked the students with whom Vittorio had talked, and they agreed to help us. They did so voluntarily and outside their busy classwork. They mostly worked by themselves, but I helped them here and there to contextualise the issues they had to deal with. These stories from Yonaguni had never been told to an outside audience, and there was therefore much shared knowledge left out. It turned out that one needed to know from where the wind blows at what season to make sense of these stories, or to know whether somebody was walking uphill or downhill. Translation is a complex activity, and the students became very skilled over time. Some of them will write their Master thesis on Ryukyuan languages, one of them even on songs from Yonaguni. We achieved a lot together, and there is an extraordinarily good relationship between us now.

What are your feelings about this project?

It was inspiring to see how uncompromising Vittorio and Anush could be when they went after their ideas. It seemed like nothing could stop them. Collaborating with them reminded me how important it is to be passionate about what one does. The sheer quantity of work that was produced by Anush, Vittorio, the students and me is a testimony of such a passion. There is now an artistic exhibition and an art catalogue that features photos, the students’ translations and academic articles I edited. Actually, there are two versions of the catalogue, one in English and one in Italian. There is also a 75min long film on children from Yonaguni, and there will be the translation of the Dunan dictionary that Vittorio and Anush recorded, and that I am currently translating. We were aware that some of the words we recorded were uttered for the last time in our presence. All the work that was produced in this collaboration has one shared message: the sadness that we experience when something comes to an end. We witnessed this in Yonaguni. 

Last but not least, I would like to share the names of the students who helped us achieve this: Eugenia Diegoli and Giulia Valsecchi coordinated and did the main bulk of the translations for the film and the catalogue, respectively. Individual texts were translated by Giovanni Baldovin, Francesca Filiteri, Claudio Longo, Chiara Mannone, Vincenzo Morgese, Sara Riccardi, Elena Santella and Luca Vitellaro. The catalogue was translated from English to Italian: Giulia Valsecchi, Isabella Rampazzo, Greta Vit, Giulia Verzini, and Flaminia Boccaccio. Giulia Valsecchi edited the Italian version of the academic essays.


Rachele Svetlana Bassan