My 88-year-old grandma, my mamanjoon, is the most wonderful nana anyone could have and I am very close to her. She has played a significant role in my development. Throughout my education, she has always been a great source of support and encouragement. When I crammed for various high-stake national exams, I suffered from anxiety and tension. However, no sooner would I begin to speak with my grandma that all my worries would fade away! The melodious tone of her voice, the words and expressions she uses, would serve to relieve any anxiety or tension. She speaks an old Isfahani dialect which is not only different from the Persian of other parts of Iran but also differs markedly from the speech of younger Isfahanis. In particular, my nana’s speech is characterized by older Isfahani words that are no longer in use and religious terms borrowed from Arabic. Whatever she says bears a spiritual connotation which is sweet, encouraging and uplifting. Yet, her dialect can no longer be heard in the streets of modern Isfahan. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why she feels alienated as she walks in the streets and prefers to stay at home. Her dialect is dying out.
I have often felt saddened by the lack of attempts to preserve the old Isfahani dialect. It goes without saying that, as time passes by, all languages change and that this process cannot be foiled. However, shouldn’t we at least try to record and document this dialect which is so intimately interwoven with our history?
As a professional linguist, I could start by recording the many conversations I have with my grandmother. However, there is a problem! The problem is that my grandmother objects to recordings of any kind for religious reasons. It is only during wedding ceremonies that old women like her can be caught on tape because during these ceremonies the camera nowadays keeps rolling no matter what, and old women have to choose between their objections to being recorded on camera and blessing the newly-wed couple and the next generation. Of course, the latter wins.
Isfahani Muslim women of my grandmother’s generation are not the only ones who object to being audio- or video-recorded. Many traditional peoples around the world have similar objections. This makes me wonder whether saving endangered languages is really all it is cracked up to be. Who are we to disregard the explicit wishes of speakers – people – so that we can “save” a language, which is, after all, nothing more than a set of practices and ideas?