Mother Tongues

a journey through language

Endangered tongues


You’ve probably heard of the plight of the orang-utans and cries to “save the whales” but have you heard of Ixcatec or Tharkarri?

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 the Haida language, guusuwàa means “someone who likes to gossip or talk a lot.”

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.


Marie Smith Jones was the last speaker of Eyak – iishuh means hello.

“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




Author: Ellen

Aspiring writer & nature enthusiast

39 thoughts on “Endangered tongues

  1. Reblogged this on Words apart and commented:
    When WordPress notified me that Mother Tongues had linked to one of my posts from a while ago in a piece about endangered languages, I checked out the whole thing, and thought it was great. So without getting to recursive (what I said about what they said about what I said) about it, I’m linking to the whole piece for you to enjoy.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. fascinating! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post.
    I think when it comes to preserving languages, a lot of people and institutions have to work together. Bolivia seems to be doing a good job, having granted 36 indigenous languages the status of an official language alongside with spanish. There are also free online programs for learning minority language all over the world. I myself am learning Welsh online, something I would not be able to do offline in my home country.
    Greetings from Germany!

    Liked by 5 people

  4. “But at it’s heart, language is about people.”

    Wonderful and thought provoking post. Preserving language seems to play to the same heart as preserving people in all their amazing varieties.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Very informative! thank you.
    “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.”

    Love Love Love your heart in this.
    I agree, we should indeed value cultural and linguistic diversity and start shifting in the direction of accepting and valuing the nature of multiculturalism. Others will start to value the need for conservation of language and culture if this is so. However, we live in hybridity and a world of interconnectedness. This is something that is springing forth in greater speed then ever before through different globalizing avenues. There are obvious pros and cons to this, but something to always keep in mind is the value of change. Whether we are aware of it or not, the pace of change is rapidly increasing in every dimension of culture–this includes linguistics. Something we can do as advocators, is promote origin and the historicity of culture, but also be a springboard of steering change in the right direction.

    Thank you for your thoughts, very stimulating indeed.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree that there does need to be a balance between encouraging people to learn & use endangered languages, and also accepting the change that arises from our increasingly connected & global world.
      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment 🙂


  6. I really enjoy studying different languages and the cultures that go with them. It is interesting to me to find how a translator has decided to translate something and finding more out later about the original cultural thinking of the original language that it was written in…sometimes things are lost in translation. My study is on the level of a hobby, but I really could relate to some of the things you said! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Wow! So much information! The irony of the two men in Mexico has a great deal to teach us about grudges. Your point, “Language is about people,” is too true. Knowing how to communicate and preserve diversity is integral to our existence together.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ka atahua i te Reo o toku tipuna I te waiata ana. (My ancestors language is beautiful to sing – bit rusty.)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. What a great idea for a Blog ! It’s interesting to note that only when there is a widespread effort to preserve ancient languages like the Irish Government is doing with Gaelic, can future generations benefit from them, others like Catalan also have widespread support, but are on the fringes.
    And if you really want to hear about an unknown language, try searching for MAPUNDUNGUN, which discoveries are showing may have a Polynesian connection (In South America).

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great topic 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A Swedish pre-school has decided to preserve the dying “forest language” Elfdalian — by starting them out young! Briliant idea and effort.

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. “Language is a powerful symbol of culture and identity”. Really enjoyed this! I think alot of people do not know how important their language is to their culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great post!
    It makes me think, I may need to learn the Javanese Language, my native language, more. In the past, I always used it for daily communication with my parents. But, since I am away from home and people around me use don’t speak it, I rarely use Javanese now. I realize that now some Javanese words are difficult to come out from my mouth even when I call my parents by phone. I don’t think Javanese is in danger, though. But, if I don’t keep it for me, I won’t be able to pass it down to the next generation, my future children probably.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. “…the tragic history of oppression suffered by speakers of these minority languages.” Beautifully said.

    This reminds me of Prof Ghil’ad Zuckermann’s seminar when he visited Hong Kong. I had the same question about saving the languages of the Indigenous Australians, until politics is trying to eliminate Cantonese from the linguistic map. I dare not try to distinguish Cantonese from Chinese here, or compare it to many other endangered languages. In my humble opinion, the our own tongue indeed represents our collective memories about Hong Kong, and our cultures and “thinking processes”. These are the treasure and value that mustn’t be taken away from us.

    Thank you so much for the post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I like that you bring up assimilation. On a societal view, that is what the One World movement is, assimilating all societies into a unified whole. Societal drift is going to move more towards a Lingua Franca as the world becomes smaller. In some ways that is terrible, as we lose the uniqueness of those cultures. Families fail to maintain traditions, language among them. Histories are forgotten because the greater story is told more often. Soon we are reduced to the Brothers Grimm being told by Disney and have lost Aseop’s Fables to passing references that no one truly understand.
    I’m three generations from the Louisiana bayou. I never learned the patios of my grand-parents. About the only family tradition we maintained is the cooking. We are losing our history one generation at a time, because we no longer have the time to teach the lesser things to our children.
    There is a reason for us to remember, to record, write and preserve these languages. Creating a Rosetta Stone for the future. Like the Rosetta Stone, after someone finds it, maybe they will find Ebla later and the treasure trove that came with it. We can’t stop the evolution of society and loss of those rich cultures, but maybe we can preserve a piece of them for the future.


  17. I found the topic quite interesting. People who think “pff, it’s a useless language, no one speaks it any more, no big loss”, don’t realize that it is not just one less form of communication it is the death of an entire culture. Several languages, where I am from, is under threat. Most notably that of the Khoisan, or rather Bushmen as they are more commonly known.

    There is even a feeling under the Afrikaans speaking community that it too is in danger of decline. Afrikaans to me, and maybe it’s only because it’s my mother tongue, is just so much richer in prose and literature compared to English. The colorful expletives alone is almost reason enough to keep it around. Sadly though the problem with minority languages is that they don’t have a wide audience so when faced with choosing a language to write a novel in, especially with the current uncertainty surrounding digital authoring and the like, authors gravitate towards the more widely used and internationally accepted languages. With this in mind one can see how it is inevitable.

    But such is the nature of things. The march of time is relentless and eventually, all things succumb to it. If that weren’t the case, there would be no more room left for new life, cultures and innovation to come into being.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Very interesting read, thanks for sharing.

    This quote really jumped out at me and brought home the importance of keeping language alive:
    “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

    How sad…

    But on a more positive note, my family recently travelled to the Cook Islands and attended a Sunday service at the local Catholic church. It was a wonderful experience, the highlight of which was listening to the choir and congregation singing in both English and Maori. A beautiful way to keep the indigenous language alive and celebrate part of the local culture (its language!).

    Liked by 1 person

  19. How strange your hypocrisy. In America, the Europeans first discovered America and claimed America for nations of Europe, legally, the Europeans were the first people to legally claim the Americas for the nations in Europe. The natives in America were killed in self defense by the former Aryans in America!!!


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