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First Encounter

Lena Herzog


Unknown. © Lena Herzog (2001)

What happened to them since I last saw them? By now, they must have left their hut and disappeared among the nearby town poor. This family seemed to be the last one left in the remote clearing far on one of the Amazonian tributaries embankments. We thought at first, they were the Uru Eus. The young mother already had three children. They were the recent descendants of one of the last tribes contacted by the Western civilization. This contact took place just over forty years ago when it seemed that no such thing could ever happen any more. Predictably, it proved fatal for the tribe, most of whom died from the common cold as did other native Indian tribes before them that came in contact with the Europeans. Others left and were never seen again. Nobody knew their language apart from our Brazilian guide who lived alongside them and learned just a few phrases. The numerous recordings and the film shot at the time of the first encounter showed a loud confident people ready for war. By the time I arrived, the handful of the Uru Eus that were left spoke mostly Portuguese and barely understood their grand parents, though I hardly heard any one of them saying a word at all. As to the family in the clearing by the river, “they are not one of us,” said the Uru Eus, “we do not understand them.” Who were they? “Others,” said the Uru Eus.

What does a loss of origin do to one? Language is our first and last resort of identity and our sense of belonging. And yet most of the languages are falling silent. Does anyone else hear them? Did they make a sound if we did not hear them? My answer is a resounding yes. Linguists, anthropologists, language enthusiasts—that intrepid surprisingly small tribe in their own right—have been tirelessly collecting and archiving thousands of endangered languages under the same firm belief. Each one of the extinct languages—a sound fossil, an audio Rosetta Stone and a testament to the limitless creativity of the human brain. While it is a melancholic endeavor to gather those vanishing voices, it is also an urgent and a revealing task as it shows us to be a lively rambunctious species constantly inventing new ways to define the world and ourselves in it.

Most of the indigenous people I have met do not see themselves and their language as endangered; and even if no living individual speaks their language, they consider it dormant, as if the language was just asleep for a bit only to awaken and come back in full force. This optimism of the linguists and the last speakers themselves in the face of the apparent mass extinction brought me into the place of extreme suspense and mystery and tentatively drew the boundaries of the territory for the work I call Last Whispers.