They’re not cute and cuddly animals you can touch, but they’re still capable of living.
They’re the vanishing mind-music of people: critically endangered languages.
Ixcatec and Tharkarri are just two of the 2,465 languages included on UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
Enveloped in silence
Languages can die out – just like plant and animal species can become extinct.
On an archipelago off the western coast of Canada, just 20 speakers of the Haida language remain – a mere fragment of the estimated 15,000 speakers at the time of European contact.
In a tiny town called Tabasco in central Mexico, the Ayapaneco language persists in the minds of two elderly men – who, until recently, wouldn’t speak to each other due to a decades-old quarrel.
In 2008, Marie Smith Jones passed away and took the Native Alaskan Eyak language with her.
“What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your language, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors or anticipate the promise of the children?”
– Wade Davis, Anthropologist
What makes a language endangered?
A language is considered endangered if it is likely to die out in the near future – it’s estimated that 50-90% of all languages will have been lost by the end of this century. Even languages that may seem healthy, with thousands of speakers like Navajo, can be vulnerable – if the younger generations aren’t learning it, it won’t survive.
Language extinction can be a gradual process. Usually, a community will find itself under pressure to assimilate into a more socially, politically and economically dominant culture. Sometimes, a group of people may be forcibly separated from their language – for example, Haida children were forbidden from speaking their language until well into the 20th century.
If you’ve ever learnt a language and then stopped speaking it, you’ll know how words begin to fade from memory. A language must be practiced – spoken or written – to live. Otherwise it becomes a tip-of-the-tongue figment, sounds lost in muffling brain-fog.
Sometimes, extinction can be sudden – like the Palawa languages that were decimated during the genocide of the Aboriginal people in Tasmania, Australia.
Why should we care?
Perhaps you may be wondering: who cares? What’s the point in saving a language that’s only spoken by a few old people anyway?
I care. Some say that language loss is simply inevitable cultural change – but I think this ignores the tragic history of oppression suffered by speakers of these minority languages. I’m a great believer in the beauty of diversity – just as we value biodiversity amongst our flora and fauna, so too we should value cultural and linguistic diversity.
Some people argue that languages carry distinct ways of thinking. Experiments have shown that speakers of different languages do in fact display tiny differences in thinking processes. But linguists question whether these slight variations constitute wholly unique world-views.
Language is about people
But at it’s heart, language is about people. Language by itself may not shape our life-perspective, but culture does. Language is a powerful symbol of culture and identity. It’s how people pass down their stories and traditions, and how they interpret the world around them. It’s how they connect and form communities. People feel the loss of their language very deeply. As one Ojibwe elder said,
“Without the language, we are warm bodies without a spirit.”
There’s also a scientific argument for saving languages. Not only are languages fascinating to study in and of themselves, they are also infused with the vast, accumulated knowledge of the people who speak them. There is a growing realisation that Indigenous knowledge has much to offer modern science: from plant-derived medicines to information about past sea levels.
A landscape of living languages
So I think it’s great that linguists continue to compile dictionaries and analyse grammar and record oral histories and traditions.
But I also hope that some languages will be more than preserved specimens in a forgotten linguistic museum. Humanity deserves a colourful landscape of living languages.
I’ll leave you with the inspiring words of Wade Davis, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and anthropologist:
Video: “Dreams from Endangered Cultures” on Ted