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Last Place on Earth

Languages: Why we must save dying tongues

About the author

Rachel Nuwer is a science journalist who contributes to venues such as The New York Times, Scientific American and Smithsonian. Her website is rachelnuwer.com and you can follow her on twitter at @rachelnuwer. She lives in Brooklyn.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Hundreds of our languages are teetering on the brink of extinction, and as Rachel Nuwer discovers, we may lose more than just words if we allow them to die out.

Tom Belt, a native of Oklahoma, didn’t encounter the English language until he began kindergarten. In his home, conversations took place in Cherokee.

Belt grew up riding horses, and after college bounced around the country doing the rodeo circuit. Eventually, he wound up in North Carolina in pursuit of a woman he met at school 20 years earlier. “All those years ago, she said the thing that attracted her to me was that I was the youngest Cherokee she’d ever met who could speak Cherokee,” he says. “I bought a roundtrip ticket to visit her, but I never used the other end of the ticket.”

The couple married. Yet his wife – also Cherokee – did not speak the language. He soon realised that he was a minority among his own people. At that time, just 400 or so Cherokee speakers were left in the Eastern Band, the tribe located in the Cherokee's historic homeland and the one that his wife belongs to. Children were no longer learning the language either. “I began to realise the urgency of the situation,” Belt says. So he decided to do something about it.

Cherokee is far from the only minority language threatened with demise. Over the past century alone, around 400 languages – about one every three months – have gone extinct, and most linguists estimate that 50% of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will be gone by the end of this century (some put that figure as high as 90%, however). Today, the top ten languages in the world claim around half of the world’s population. Can language diversity be preserved, or are we on a path to becoming a monolingual species?

Flags (Thinkstock)

The top 10 languages in the world claim around half of the world’s population (Thinkstock)

Since there are so many imperilled languages, it’s impossible to label just one as the rarest or most endangered, but at least 100 around the world have only a handful of speakers – from Ainu in Japan to Yagan in Chile. It can be difficult to find these people too. There are some famous cases – Marie Smith Jones passed away in Alaska in 2008, taking the Eyak language with her – but usually they are older individuals (often in failing health) who don’t advertise their language skills. “The smaller the number of speakers, the harder it is to get an accurate headcount,” says David Harrison, chair of the linguistics department at Swarthmore College, and co-founder of the non-profit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

Even if a number of people still speak it, they might live far apart and so not converse with one other – or in the case of the pre-Columbian Mexican language Ayapaneco, the last two surviving speakers refused to talk to each other for years. Without practice, even a native language will begin to degrade in the speaker’s mind. Salikoko Mufwene, a linguist at the University of Chicago, grew up speaking Kiyansi, spoken by a small ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 40 years living away from the DRC, Mufwene has only come across only two people who speak the language. On a recent trip to his home village, he found himself searching for words and struggling to keep up with the conversation. “I realised Kiyansi exists more in my imagination than in practice,” he says. “This is how languages die.”

(Thinkstock)

If last speakers of a language live far apart, their vocabularies can begin to fade (Thinkstock)

Languages usually reach the point of crisis after being displaced by a socially, politically and economically dominant one, as linguists put it. In this scenario, the majority speaks another language – English, Mandarin, Swahili – so speaking that language is key to accessing jobs, education and opportunities. Sometimes, especially in immigrant communities, parents will decide not to teach their children their heritage language, perceiving it as a potential hindrance to their success in life.

Speakers of minority languages have suffered a long history of persecution. Well into the 20th Century, many Native American children in Canada and the US were sent to boarding schools, where they were often forbidden to speak their native language. Today, many English-speaking Americans are still hostile towards non-English speakers, especially Spanish ones. Extreme persecution still happens as well. Last August, a linguist in China was arrested for trying to open schools that taught his native language, Uighur. He has not been heard from since.

Endangered tongues

For these reasons and others, languages are dying all over the world. Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists 576 as critically endangered, with thousands more categorised as endangered or threatened. The highest numbers occur in the Americas. “I would say that virtually all the [minority] languages in the US and Canada are endangered,” says Peter Austin, a professor of field linguistics at the University of London. “Even a language like Navajo, with thousands of speakers, falls into that category because very few children are learning it.” If measured in proportion to population, however, then Australia holds the world record for endangered languages. When Europeans first arrived there, 300 aboriginal languages were spoken around the country. Since then, 100 or so have gone extinct, and linguists regard 95% of the remaining ones as being on their last legs. Just a dozen of the original 300 are still being taught to children.

Aboriginal performer (Getty Images)

In Australia, more than 100 aboriginal languages have gone extinct since European settlers arrived (Getty Images)

But does it matter whether a seemingly obscure language spoken by a few people in one isolated corner of the world goes out of existence?

Some people argue that language loss, like species loss, is simply a fact of life on an ever-evolving planet. But counter arguments are abundant. “A lot of people invoke social Darwinism to say ‘who cares’,” says Mark Turin, an anthropologist and linguist at Yale University. “But we spend huge amounts of money protecting species and biodiversity, so why should it be that the one thing that makes us singularly human shouldn’t be similarly nourished and protected?”

What’s more, languages are conduits of human heritage. Writing is a relatively recent development in our history (written systems currently exist for only about one-third of the world’s languages), so language itself is often the only way to convey a community’s songs, stories and poems. The Iliad was an oral story before it was written, as was The Odyssey. “How many other traditions are out there in the world that we’ll never know about because no-one recorded them before the language disappeared?” Austin says. 

Kitten (Thinkstock)

How does this kitten make you feel? The Cherokee language has a unique word for it: "oo-kah-huh-sdee" (Thinkstock)

Languages also convey unique cultures. Cherokee, for example, has no word for goodbye, only “I will see you again”. Likewise, no phrase exists for “I’m sorry”. On the other hand, it has special expressions all its own. One word – oo-kah-huh-sdee –represents the mouth-watering, cheek-pinching delight experienced when seeing an adorable baby or a kitten. “All of these things convey a culture, a way of interpreting human behaviour and emotion that’s not conveyed the same way as in the English language,” Belt says. Without the language, the culture itself might teeter, or even disappear. “If we are to survive, to continue on and to exist as a people with a distinct and unique culture,” he continues, “then we have to have a language.”

“It’s very hard as an English speaker to understand that,” adds Lenore Grenoble, a linguist at the University of Chicago. “But you just hear that time and time again: that people feel the loss of their language in a very personal way.”

Wealth of wisdom

Another argument mirrors that of biodiversity conservation. Just as ecosystems provide a wealth of services for humanity – some known, others unacknowledged or yet to be discovered – languages, too, are ripe with possibility. They contain an accumulated body of knowledge, including about geography, zoology, mathematics, navigation, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, meteorology and more. In the case of Cherokee, that language was born of thousands of years spent inhabiting the southern Appalachia Mountains. Cherokee words exist for every last berry, stem, frond and toadstool in the region, and those names also convey what kind of properties that object might have – whether it’s edible, poisonous or has some medicinal value. “No culture has a monopoly on human genius, and we never know where the next brilliant idea may come from,” Harrison says. “We lose ancient knowledge if we lose languages.”

Berries (Thinkstock)

Languages can contain vital knowledge - the names of berries can convey whether they're poisonous, for example (Thinkstock)

Finally, languages are ways of interpreting the world, and no two are the same. As such, they can provide insight into neurology, psychology and the linguistic capacities of our species. “Different languages provide distinct pathways of thought and frameworks for thinking and solving problems,” Harrison says. Returning to Cherokee, unlike English it is verb rather than noun-based, and those verbs can be conjugated in a multitude of ways based on who they are acting upon. And depending on the suffix, speakers can indicate whether a noun is toward or away from them; uphill or downhill; or upstream or down stream. It’s a much more precise way of dealing with the world than English. “There’s a misconception that these languages are simple just because many are unwritten,” Turin says. “But most have incredibly complex grammatical systems that far exceed that of English.”

Scramble to save

For all of these reasons, linguists are scrambling to document and archive the diversity of quickly disappearing languages. Their efforts include making dictionaries, recording histories and traditions, and translating oral stories. “If there’s really good documentation, then there’s a chance that these languages could be revitalised in the future even after they cease to be spoken,” Turin says.

Without speakers or persons interested in revitalising them, however, these efforts are like “preserving languages as museum artefacts”, Mufwene says.

After learning that his language was poised to disappear, Belt and other concerned Cherokee speakers in the Eastern Band began discussing how to save the language. Belt volunteered to teach Cherokee lessons at a local school, for example, and eventually the tribe decided to create a language immersion school for children, where core classes –including science and math – are taught in Cherokee. Cherokee language is now also offered at the local university, where Belt teaches.

Words (Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

“The Eastern Cherokee are one of the ones really quietly working on their own language revitalisation programs,” says Bernard Perley, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. “But no-one ever hears about the work they’re doing.”

There are also a few examples of languages being revived even after actually going extinct. By the 1960s, the last fluent Miami language speakers living in the American Midwest passed away. Thanks largely to the efforts of one interested member of the Miami Nation tribe, however, the language is now taught at Miami University in Ohio. “The Miami Nation asked, what if the experts are wrong? What if the language is only sleeping, and we can awaken it?” Perley says. “They changed the rhetoric from death to life.”

Tech support

To an extent, technology can help these efforts. “Many speakers are using technology to do really interesting things that were not imaginable a generation back,” says Turin. For example, a version of Windows 8 is available in Cherokee, and a Cherokee app allows speakers to text in the language’s 85 letters. A multitude of sites devoted to single languages or languages of a specific region unite speakers and provide multimedia teaching tools, too, including the Digital Himalayas project, the Diyari blog, the Arctic Languages Vitality project and the Enduring Voices Project.

Thanks to the Eastern Band’s efforts, today around 60 of their children can speak Cherokee – a much better statistic than when Belt moved to North Carolina in 1991. Belt, along with countless other speakers of rare and endangered languages, is not ready to let his language fade into history – even if the journey toward revitalisation is an uphill one. As an elder told Belt years ago: “It’s all well and good that y’all want to do this, but remember, they didn’t take it away overnight, and you’re not going to get it back overnight.” 

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