Sundance Film Festival

Sundance coverage day 3

In 1999, Seth Kramer was on location in Vilnius, Lithuania, directing RESISTANCE: UNTOLD STORIES OF JEWISH PARTISANS. His excellent guide, a local historian, pointed out that the local square was paved with stolen Jewish headstones; they were inscribed in Yiddish, the language his grandparents spoke fluently, his parents spoke moderately, and he didn’t speak at all.

greg and david the linguistsKramer halted the filming. He was outraged, incensed and disgusted. After collecting himself, he completed the project, but left Vilnius (Vilna) with the desire to create a film on Yiddish and reflect upon what happens when a language is no longer passed from generation to generation.

Returning to the United States, he completed his searing film for PBS, which was nominated for an Emmy Award. But Kramer also began developing an idea for a film on the declining usage and knowledge of Yiddish. The terrorist attacks on 9-11 derailed the project, but in 2003, he approached his friends, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger, with the idea for a film on Yiddish. Daniel and Jeremy had been collaborating on projects since their days as campers at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake.

Together, they formed Ironbound Films, and began preproduction research. The three were most intrigued by those who viewed language loss without sentimentality – as they did – but as an impending global crisis: The Linguists. They were specifically drawn to David Harrison, a linguist and scientist at Swarthmore College with matinee idol looks and the confidence of a real life Indiana Jones. His co-researcher, Gregory Anderson, is a Harvard-alum, black belt, and fan of extreme fighting. Together they speak over 25 languages.

THE LINGUISTS follows David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, this linguistic Felix and Oscar odd couple, as they race to endangered language hotspots in order to document languages before they are extinct. In Siberia, they sought to record the remnant speakers of Chulym, a native language that was suppressed by the Soviets. In Northeastern India, they visited a boarding school where tribal children are taught Hindi and a trade, and encouraged to forget their tribal languages, including Sora. In Bolivia, David and Greg, along with the filmmakers, trekked high into the Andes to unlock the secrets of Kallawaya, a native language with fewer than 100 surviving speakers. Along they way, the linguists were bitten by swarming fist-sized bugs, got threatened, actually risked their lives, got duped, nearly were danced to death, and even got feverishly ill and possibly cured by native medicines.

Although eighty percent of the world’s population speaks 83 global languages, there are an estimated 7,000 spoken languages in the world today; and about one dies every two weeks. In Australia, 231 aboriginal tongues are endangered and being supplanted by English. In South America, 113 native languages are known to be losing speakers to Spanish and Portuguese. The roots of extinction include shame, embarrassment, active government suppression, the desire for commercial advancement, and, like Yiddish, the failure of parents to teach it to their children.

The documentary makes the point that what is at stake is not only a loss of culture and stories, but the loss of an understanding of medicinal plants, and a way of viewing the environment and human thought. The Indian students that are a native speaker of Sora perform better in arithmetic than their classmates. Perhaps it is because the Sora language counts numbers in Base 12, instead of the English Base 10 system – meaning that thirteen in Sora is “twelve and one” instead of the English “three and ten.” In some languages, words have meanings not seen in the major global languages, such as “nosore” which means “to free someone from a tiger” in Gta, while in other languages, plurality is conveyed by suffixes not seen elsewhere. For example, in the Ethiopian Bayso language, the suffix ‘titi’ means one item, “no suffix” is plural, “jaa” means 2-6 items, and “oor” can mean more than seven items.

As with so many documentary films, the filmmakers and the audience never know what will happen next. When the linguists give a gift to a village chieftain in India, a riot nearly breaks out in a place where two French linguists had been recently murdered by Maoist rebels. In Siberia, the linguists realize that their taxi driver, Vasya Gabov, is actually the best fluent speaker of Chulym they discover. Gabov, a Russian speaker, tells how decades of shame and ridicule had kept him silent; only after he helps the filmmakers find subjects do they realize that he can speak Chulym.

At the Sundance premiere of THE LINGUISTS, Johnny Hill, Jr., perhaps the sole surviving fluent speaker of the Chemehuevi language (a Numic branch of the Southern Paiute language), spoke to a tear filled audience on what it is like to speak a language that no one else can converse in or understand. He resides on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Western Arizona, where he farms alfafa and works on highway maintenance, and in his spare time records the language for future generations.

Asked how the making of this film will affect the filmmakers’ raising of their newborn children and young toddlers, Kramer said that he was actively thinking about how he could impart the Yiddish language, songs, stories and mindsets to his children, and Newberger, a former kibbutz volunteer and intern for an Israeli film production company, plans to spend time in Israel with his family to make sure his children learn Hebrew. As for the Yiddish film… well, perhaps in a few more years.

Links and Resources:

Interview with Professor Harrison on When Languages Die

Link to Endangered Languages

Yiddish Lesson Brazilian Style

A Yiddish comedy sketch

The Beatles in Yiddish

Y-Love raps in Yiddish

Written by Larry Mark from for Jewlicious.

Larry enjoys sitting in dark rooms surrounded by lots of people, and also watching films. When he sits in lit rooms, he enjoys editing and

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About the author


Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.

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