Saving the World's Dying Languages

Endangered languages are being salvaged from the arc of history.

WORDS Ed Winstead
November 2019

Illustrations by Raquel Aparicio Torinos

There are roughly 7,000 languages used across the globe today, from Rotokas, in Papua New Guinea, which has only 12 letters, to Kuş Dili, a form of Turkish that’s whistled. But that huge variety is fading. Today, 45 percent of the world’s population speaks either English, Mandarin, Hindustani or Spanish. And while this common linguistic ground might seem like a boon for humanity, the connection comes at a price: By the end of this century, linguists predict that half of today’s spoken languages will be nearly or totally gone.

Languages aren’t just a collection of words in a grammatical system. As literary critic George Steiner writes in After Babel, “Even where it is spoken by a handful, by the harried remnants of destroyed communities, a language contains within itself the boundless potential of discovery, of re-compositions of reality, of articulate dreams.”

Saving endangered languages is a tricky feat—it’s difficult for potential speakers to become fluent if they can only immerse themselves in a small population pool. After all, most vanishing languages are spoken by aging generations and abandoned by grandchildren.

Despite the odds, native speakers and linguists across the globe have been working to teach new generations, document vocabulary and revive entire languages thought to be extinct in a race to preserve the world’s unique tongues before it’s too late. Thousands of languages remain in danger of disappearing, but some are being spoken once again. Here, a look at five endangered languages and the fight to save them.

"Yalluh" means yellow in Gullah.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas is famously quiet on the bench, rarely asking questions of lawyers during oral arguments—something he attributed to the mockery he received as a child for the way he spoke. Growing up in eastern Georgia, Thomas is a native speaker of Gullah, a creole language that developed over the 18th and 19th centuries among enslaved people along coastal South Carolina and Georgia. The product of life on remote rice plantations—often located on barrier islands that wealthy whites avoided for most of the year out of fear of disease—Gullah became a common language that the enslaved people could use, regardless of where they were from, and a common culture of craft making, fishing and other skills crucial for survival.

Though nearly 150 languages have already disappeared in the U.S., Gullah hangs on (in part because of this isolation), with some 70,000 speakers today, mostly elderly. It blends elements of English and several Central and West African languages into a form all its own. “Hoss,” for example, is derived from the English “horse,” while “cootah,” or turtle, probably harkens back to “kuta,” the word for turtle in several West African languages.

Since almost everyone who speaks Gullah is bilingual, the language is creeping closer to English, changing significantly from what it was a century or two ago. And today, the barrier islands where Gullah originated are prime coastal real estate, resulting in the dispersal of Gullah communities, and the language itself.

But an effort to preserve Gullah—not only the language, but also the culture—has begun to flourish in recent years, spearheaded by a new generation of activists. One of the champions is artist and educator Sunn m’Cheaux, who now teaches the language in Harvard’s African Languages department, as well as to schoolchildren back in South Carolina. It’s not something he set out to do, at least not in those terms. “I don’t think we were consciously doing it as a preservation effort,” he says. “We were just living, just the mere virtue of living it out.”

The pressures on Gullah people to assimilate, code-switch or simply stay silent have made “living it out” difficult, but also a conscious act of heritage. “This is something that, like jazz or blues or gospel,” m’Cheaux says, “is steeped in the actual geography of this country.”

Asked if he’s optimistic about the future, he points to his work with children, inculcating not only an understanding of the language but also a pride in the heritage that made it. “I get the progress in real time,” he says. “I talk with children, and I can see these sparks lighting up in their eyes as they learn more about themselves.”

"Kan-mes paski" means "I greet you" in Mutsun, one of the Ohlone languages.

If food is a window into a culture, then the language around food can offer similar insight. At Café Ohlone in Berkeley, California, there’s plenty of room for both. The restaurant, also known in the Native American Chochenyo Ohlone language as “Mak-’amham,” or “our food,” is run by members of two Ohlone tribes, Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, and serves traditional Ohlone foods, made with ingredients indigenous to the region.

The Ohlone culture, and the family of languages they spoke, belongs to what is now the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 18th century, there were about 80 indigenous languages spoken in what is now California, and today over half have no native speakers left. The last native Ohlone speakers died in the 1930s.

But, over the last two decades, a widespread movement to revitalize California’s indigenous languages has taken root, and brought Ohlone, and several others, back from what seemed like extinction. Café Ohlone is an indicator of how much has been accomplished. “There are maybe a dozen adults who are fairly proficient in the language,” says Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley.

Given the history, even a dozen speakers is a feat. Beginning with the Gold Rush in 1848, the federal and California governments systematically decimated Native American groups in the state. The population plummeted from 150,000 to just 30,000 people, and Native American children were sent to boarding schools where, if they spoke their native tongue, they were beaten. “It was cultural genocide through conscious attempts by the government to stop people living their ways and using their languages,” Hinton says.

Between 1915 and 1945, a field ethnologist named John Peabody Harrington painstakingly recorded a massive amount of information—from audio recordings to descriptions of grammatical structures to folklore and music—about indigenous languages and cultures, Ohlone among them. With this data, Ohlone has been brought back to life. The group Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival has used Harrington’s treasure trove of notes and data, with help from linguists like Hinton, to reverse-engineer the spoken language, cross-referencing them with related languages that are still spoken and the memories of people who knew native speakers when some were still living.

As far as things have come, the revitalization effort will never be finished. “It’s not going to ever be the case that this language is now safe,” says Hinton. “It’ll always take active work to keep it going, because English is otherwise going to overwhelm it.”

"Hello" in Hawaii Sign Language.

The official discovery—if you can call it that—of Hawaii Sign Language didn’t happen until 2013, when a native practitioner, Linda Lambrecht, gave a presentation at a linguistics conference at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She demonstrated the gestures used to sign common words like “mother” in both American Sign Language and Hawaii Sign Language, illustrating to a stunned crowd that they were completely unrelated. It marked the first new language discovered in the U.S. in 80 years. Many knew there was sign language from Hawaii, but nobody had ever made a comparison.

Lambrecht had learned HSL from her two deaf brothers. She was 71 by the time she gave her presentation, alarmed at watching HSL dying out in front of her. When ASL arrived on the islands in the 1940s, Hawaiian people tended to view it as more prestigious than their own, as those using it had higher-status educations and jobs. As ASL took off, HSL nearly went extinct.

“Everybody just kind of assumed that it had to be a dialect of ASL, because Hawaii was part of the U.S.” says Dr. James Woodward, who works with deaf communities around the world to document and preserve sign languages, including HSL. Teaming up with researchers at the University of Hawaii, Woodward set out to confirm what Lambrecht had said. “We started comparing the vocabulary and we found that only 12 percent of the vocabulary of Hawaii Sign Language had any possible relation at all to ASL.” That extremely small overlap—coupled with the grammatical structure, which is fundamentally different not only from spoken Hawaiian, but from English and ASL, as well—made it clear they were dealing with a totally distinct language. But it was also rapidly vanishing.

The deaf people of Hawaii were documented using a sign language at least as early as 1821, though it surely existed prior. Of the 3,700 or so deaf people living on the islands today, roughly 10 are fluent in HSL. Another 30 use what’s called Creolized Hawaii Sign Language, a blend of HSL and ASL. Since almost all of the remaining speakers are over 65, Lambrecht, Woodward and his colleagues are racing against time. “You need a lot of drawings and written materials to document sign languages,” Woodward says, “and these drawings take a long time and are quite expensive to produce.”

Though there may not be enough time to salvage every detail of HSL, Woodward hopes to have enough documentation to begin offering courses at the University of Hawaii in a couple of years.

"Hello" in Okinawan, when spoken by a man: "Hasai"; when spoken by a woman: "Haitai."

The lush, mountainous Ryukyu Islands could easily be confused for Hawaii. They stretch in a long arc between Japan’s southernmost large island, Kyushu, and Taiwan. For five centuries they were ruled by the Ryukyu Kingdom, a culture of seafaring traders who were vassals of both Chinese and Japanese governments before being formally annexed into Japan in 1879. The most common language spoken on their largest island was Okinawan, one of six Ryukyuan languages related to, but distinct from, Japanese.

Okinawan, both spoken and written, is unintelligible to Japanese speakers. “Thank you,” in Japanese, for example, is “arigatō.” In Okinawan it’s “nifēdēbiru.”

Today, the Japanese government does not formally recognize Ryukyuan people as an ethnic minority, and Japanese is by far the dominant language on the island, the result of a deliberate campaign of Japanization that was particularly effective in schools, where classes were taught in Japanese. By 1907, the language was completely banned in schools, and by the 1930s, government employees such as postal workers were required to turn away anyone who used Okinawan, and could be punished if they used it themselves. In the next decade, public use of Okinawan virtually disappeared, and was rarely spoken, even at home.

According to professor Patrick Heinrich, who studies Okinawan revitalization efforts at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, the systematic shunning of Okinawan had led to the “acceptance by Japanese minorities of this stigma, which led them to not pass on traditional knowledge, culture and language.”

Today, the Endangered Languages Project estimates that there are only about 95,000 Okinawan speakers, and, as is the case with most endangered languages, that population is rapidly aging. Efforts to preserve the language began in 1955, and a vibrant grassroots movement supporting the use of Okinawan has developed since the 1990s. The movement, Heinrich says, is “not simply seeking to revitalize Okinawan,” but “to transform Japan into a country that can come to grips with linguistic and cultural diversity.”

"Thulu" in Gamilaraay means "stick."

Before the arrival of the British in 1788, the Gamilaraay people were among the four largest groups of indigenous Australians, their language widely spoken across the rolling woods and farmland in what is now northern New South Wales, northwest of Sydney. But the rapid spread of disease, famine and war between indigenous people and British settlers over the 19th century dramatically reduced their numbers.

On top of all of this, indigenous Australian languages were banned from schools, and children were punished for speaking them as late as the 1960s. The last of the fluent Gamilaraay speakers passed away in the 1950s.

Today, the language is resurging, buoyed by new educational initiatives for children and teens. The Australian National University, for instance, has offered Gamilaraay in classrooms since 2013 and will also begin conducting them online in 2020. Dr. John Giacon, an honorary lecturer in linguistics at the Australian National University in Canberra, says that in the early 1990s, when revitalization efforts began, “there was no one who knew more than words or very short phrases.”

To restore the language, researchers drew from the notes of 19th-century surveyors and missionaries, and began publishing dictionaries of Gamilaraay. Australians of aboriginal descent also began working with linguists, piecing together childhood memories of fluent speakers they knew. While the new Gamilaraay will never be exactly as it was, “there is great power in reusing the language, and a great sense of pride,” Giacon says.

As with so many of these languages, whether growing again or in decline, Gamilaraay will always be straining against the current. Many of the world’s endangered languages will inevitably disappear, a wealth of cultural memory that will never be regained. But many will also persevere, shepherded along by dedicated people who’ve already lost too much. 


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