Featured photo: Andres Ozuna and Anna Luisa Daigneault at Language and Nature Conference (courtesy photo)
Anna Luisa Daigneault likens language to traveling by car.
“It’s about going inside it and going somewhere,” she says. “You’re seeing through the windows of the vehicle; you’re using the engine and the seats and you’re soaking in all of the experiences accumulated through generations and generations.”
The Greensboro musician who produces and performs under the stage name Quilla is known for her musical talents, but her other passion in life is preserving endangered languages.
“Before, languages would live on after the lifetime of one individual,” she says during a video call. “The language was full of poetry and jokes. That richness, it’s almost like a different side of your personality.”
But a decade ago, during her college years at McGill University, Daigneault learned a startling statistic.
“I learned that there are 7,000 languages in the world,” she says. “And half of them are endangered or disappearing. Before 2099, over 3,000 languages are going to disappear.”
That’s how Daigneault got involved with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a nonprofit that works to document, maintain and revitalize endangered languages. She’s been working with the organization for the last 10 years and currently serves as the program director.
Her own family’s relationships with languages also drove Daigneault to this line of work. Daigneault, whose father is French-Canadian and mother is from Peru, noticed the loss of certain languages among older generations of her family when she was a child.
“I realized as I was growing up that we were speaking colonial languages,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about the other languages, like Quechua. My grandmother was a native speaker. It’s an indigenous language from the Andes that had not been passed down to her descendants.”
Thankfully, Quechua is not an endangered language, but Daigneault says that no one in her family speaks it anymore, including her grandmother, Leonor.
“She stopped speaking it at the age of 16 when she emigrated from Arequipa near the Andes mountains to Lima,” Daigneault says.
For more than 60 years, Leonor has been speaking Spanish, which is how Daigneault has communicated with her grandmother all of her life.
“I felt a sense of grief that my family had lost certain languages,” she says.
In 2010, Daigneault started taking Quechua courses in Lima and has been making incremental progress through online classes. She says she wanted to learn the language to connect to her heritage. Her stage name means “moon” in Quechua.
“People should be paying attention because it’s a long-term impact of cultural assimilation,” Daigneault says. “Slowly we’re becoming more and more homogenous. On the one hand you could say that’s a good thing because we can communicate with each other, but at the same time, we are losing all of the generations and generations of wisdom that is encoded in this languages, the traditions, the music…. We should appreciate the cultural and linguistic diversity we have in the world and not just let them disappear.”
Recently, Daigneault participated in Greensboro’s TEDx series and spoke about the importance of the work. For the event, which was recorded in an empty auditorium, Daigneault wore a dress she and local textile artist Ann Tilley made using pancake batter and dye.
“Languages are shared museums of the mind,” is scrawled on the dress in English, French, Spanish, Quechua and Ɨshir, in Daigneault’s curly handwriting.
The last language, Ɨshir, is an endangered indigenous language spoken in Paraguay by the Chamacoco people. Daigneault was first introduced to the language in 2009 when she traveled there on a Living Tongues trip in search of language hot spots, or areas in the world with high levels of language endangerment, high levels of diversity and low levels of documentation. The group she was with was searching for a speaker who was already engaged with documenting and preserving an endangered language whom they could help. That’s when Daigneault met Andres Ozuna.
“We just clicked in that moment,” she recalls. “He already had the bones of his [Ɨshir] dictionary. He had been writing it by hand on paper. He had all of these stacks of paper everywhere.”
Daigneault and others got to work with Ozuna to create a dictionary of the Ɨshir language and just a few months ago, amid the pandemic, their decade of work was completed.
The dictionary was published in Paraguay and is composed of multiple pages of text in which Ɨshir words are translated into Spanish. Embedded alongside the translations are vibrant paintings by Edgar Ferreria, an Ɨshir artist.
While this isn’t the first time an Ɨshir dictionary has been created, Daigneault says it’s the first time a native speaker has been a part of the publishing process. In fact, Ozuna did most of the translating and creating the dictionary, while Daigneault served as the editor. Mindful decisions were made to include archaic terminology, ones that are being replaced by the dominant language, in this case Spanish, in the text. Daigneault says when a dominant language starts being used to replace certain words, it’s often a key indicator that a language is disappearing; she hopes having a physical dictionary will help to combat that.
“Seeing the language in print and celebrated increases the prestige for the language,” Daigneault says. “It’s a useful thing to have. Where else would they be able to find those words when the elders pass away? The dictionary becomes a legacy item.”
According to the Living Tongues Institute, there are fewer than 1,500 speakers of Ɨshir, mostly located in communities along the upper Paraguay River. After its publication, Daigneault says Ozuna hand-delivered copies of the dictionary to community schools and other places where they will be useful.
Now, Daigneault is working on additional dictionaries of other languages, including online versions available through the Living Tongues Institute. She’s also continuing to further her personal language journey by practicing Quechua in her free time.
On a recent visit to Canada — where her mother’s side of the family, including her grandmother, lives — Daigneault showed clips of news reports and televisions shows in Quechua, which is making a comeback in Peru, to her grandmother.
“She started laughing and staring at the screen,” Daigneault says. “She can’t speak it anymore, but she understood.”
During these visits with her grandmother, Daigneault gathered stories from Leonor’s childhood, including memories of an annual pilgrimage to a particular spot in the Andes mountains.
“They would walk and camp for two days,” Daigneault explains. “Even though I’m not able to talk about the language yet, I can talk about the different experiences she had. Eventually, I hope to do that same pilgrimage.”
Learn more about Daigneault’s work and the Living Tongues Institute at livingtongues.org.