Allgemein Language revitalization Linguistic Anthropology

What to do When Your Language Dies

The death of language is terrifying and real. We can help.

Let’s do a thought experiment!

Think about what you’re into. Whether it’s career or hobby. Think about the bits of your life that you consider important to who you are as a person. It could be popular and common, it could be quirky and unique. All that matters it’s what it means to you. It makes you yourself and if someone asks what you do or who you are, you’re comfortable saying “I am X.”

Maybe you’re a cyclist and know the sport and culture intimately. You enjoy talking about the races and know things about the rolling resistance of different tires at different inflation pressures and different frame construction materials and design geometries and their proper applications. You’ll often excitedly talk about your favorite brand of shifting or brake component.

Maybe you’re a sports card enthusiast and you’ve got a gigantic collection you’ve amassed over the course of your life. It’s always changing though, based on what you have or haven’t had or what’s challenging to collect. You know things about the history of your favorite sports and about different sets of cards from a given year and brand. And you know the little things, like when a certain manufacturer had an issue with one of their print locations and so a limited amount of certain cards for a certain year are off shade or the print is off center. And you only use one certain brand of protective case for your cards because it’s the only brand that uses plastics that don’t have a certain acidic ingredient that’s been shown to damage the condition of cards over time.

Maybe you’re an armchair anti-vaccination “researcher” and you know all the arguments to shoot down peer-reviewed scientific studies because you read everything your favorite 1990s celebrity puts out.

Maybe you’re an artist and your world is color. The different shades, hues, and saturation are all you think about. Your color acuity is far above average and you know the names probably 50 different greens.

Whatever it is you’re into, you know the specific bits of it that make it what it is. You know the history and importance and you know the bits of language that don’t exist outside of it.

Now.

Imagine one morning you wake up, and for some strange reason, everyone around you is speaking a different language. I don’t know why. Maybe an invading force with a far superior military came in in the night and killed or imprisoned your political leaders and military. This invading force speaks another language and they don’t care for yours.

They don’t care for yours because you aren’t super happy they took over and they don’t want you to be able to communicate in ways they don’t understand.

And so now, you still know all those words to describe the things you love, but you’re not allowed to express it. The people aren’t all military anymore, there are some civilians and they seem nice enough. And you meet some of them and you’ve learned a bit of the language and you can communicate well enough.

But they don’t care about the things you love. They don’t have bicycles or sports cards and their art is completely different and they’re not interested in different gradients of color.

You can talk to them about your interests, but they don’t have the words. You can give them the word in your language but it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t mean anything. You can use roundabout descriptions for the different shades of green but they don’t care. It’s all green to them. Sure that one is darker but it’s all green.

Over time, you adjust. You make do. Some people know the few words you’ve had the energy to explain to them. Some people put up with your roundabout descriptions of things that don’t even exist in their brains.

So mostly, you don’t talk about it. It lives on in your head now.

How do you get a culture that doesn’t care about bicycling, sports cards, or colorful art to create a space to care about it when nothing about their world view can make room for it to matter at all.

Maybe you have children, maybe you don’t. But the people in your life don’t or can’t understand things the way you do. Life goes on and it is what it is.

But that experience. That world view. That aspect of culture. It dies with you. And everyone in your culture has similar stories and experiences that are locked within them and fading daily.

And after you, all that’s left are the written or recorded roundabout discussions that you or people like you have left behind. And that only matters as long as it’s important to someone.

Now, imagine that some form of that scenario, whether colonial force or just the erosion of time, is true for almost every language in the world.

Only…it isn’t imaginary.

There are perhaps 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Just 20 of them are spoken by more than half of the world. Most languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers. It’s estimated that up to 90% of languages in the world will be extinct by the year 2100.

Language endangerment is real, and honestly it’s horrifying. It’s like Alzheimers of a culture. Once it begins, the understanding of the culture that speaks it get fuzzier and fuzzier. Eventually the specifics are lost. Names and dates and history fades. All that’s left are general concepts.

With no native speakers, a language dies. With no fluent speakers, a language is extinct. A language can be revitalized but it cannot ever be the same. Latin is used academically. But with no recordings of the original speakers, how differently are our pronunciations? What was it about being born and raised with Latin lexical and grammatical structures that impacted your world view? We cannot know that ever again.

It was lost and will always be lost. There are fluent speakers of Latin. Plenty of them. But there are no more native speakers and I doubt there would ever need to be a native speaker of Latin ever again.

It’s most likely that the majority of languages that have ever existed are already long gone. Without written records, there is no hope of ever recovering any aspect but scraps of artifacts to understand them.

It seems so difficult for it to happen, but it does and is happening. Languages become potentially endangered when there is a strong pressure for it to change. Like that hypothetical invading force, or just growing popularity of the language of a nearby region…with less incentive to use your mother tongue, the less reason there is to retain it.

Eventually children stop learning it and a language officially becomes endangered. A language is seriously endangered once it’s unlikely that it will survive another generation.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Language revitalization efforts can help. Communities working to bolster identity around their languages build stronger communities with pride in their past.

But to me, there is a component that’s…not missing…but could help immensely.

And that’s us. You and me. We’re speaking and reading one of those 20 most popular languages. Our interest in endangered languages and their cultures will help pull them back from the brink. Because celebrating one’s own culture is fantastic, but in small groups, without excitement from others it’s isolating in some ways.

And so I invite you to work with me. I am putting together a group of people who will commit to learning an endangered language.

I’m not sure which yet, although I do have a few criteria in mind.

First, it obviously has to be endangered. It should be sufficiently endangered that our efforts can be useful. Everything we learn and create will be publicly available to anyone who is interested—either in learning the language or in using the format.

It also needs to have some kind of publicly accessible resources. If everyone interested is local we may be able to sign up for a class if it’s available. But it’s more likely we will be meeting virtually and may never meet in person. We need to be able to access the same materials and share them with each other.

Lastly…I kind of don’t want to learn a language that will share a lot of similarities with English or German, which are the languages I speak. I started learning Dutch but it’s so similar to German lexically, and so similar to English grammatically that it isn’t sticking like I would like.

And so I want to learn something else. An isolate. A Polynesian language.

As of right now I have two that I’m strongly considering.

The first is Hawaiian. With 4,000 native and 24,000 total speakers, more people live in the town where I grew up than speak it. It was illegal to speak it from the late 19th through the middle of the 20th century and it wasn’t until the 1980s that it began being taught in public schools. There are also some excellent public resources including DuoLingo.

The second is Inuvialuktun. It’s an indigenous language of western Canada that is apparently comprised of three different but closely related languages. It is spoken by approximately 1,150 people. There is an app that teaches basic words, phrases, and pronunciation. There is a cultural heritage website with some great resources, including similar lessons to the app (and from what I can tell, done by the same woman).

Give me your suggestions!

I would like to “meet” monthly and chat and share things regularly. As we learn, we can build resources for people to learn what we know. As we gain confidence, we will write and share and begin to communicate.

And we can take it as far as we can. I have audio and video recording experience. I write and record music. We can make video lessons or do short films. We can write and record songs. We can (and I intend to) create videos that have nothing to do with the language at all but we speak it, with English captions.

I don’t know how many drops we can add to the bucket of language revitalization. But honestly, it needs to be an ocean, and so anything we can add is both helpful and in some cases, desperately needed.

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. Pedal Powered Anthropology is an anthropological educational initiative that seeks to bring profound travel experiences to a local level while encouraging others to get out and explore the world around them. This blog details all aspects of my work as Anthrospin, including my take on topics within four fields anthropology as well as bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

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