by Alissa Fleck
In its series “Vanishing Voices,” National Geographic reports one language dies every fourteen days. By the next century, the magazine predicts, half of the 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will be gone altogether. Small communities are increasingly abandoning their native languages in favor of the much more widely-spoken English, Spanish and Mandarin.
Seventy-eight percent of the world’s population speaks the 85 largest languages. English has 328 million first-language speakers, and Mandarin 845 million, while Tuvan speakers in Russia, for instance, come in at 235,000. Nearly all 231 languages spoken in Australia are endangered according to a National Geographic press release.
The magazine clarifies its methodology: “Linguists have identified a host of language hotspots (analogous to biodiversity hotspots) that have both a high level of linguistic diversity and a high number of threatened languages. Many of these are in the world’s least reachable, and often least hospitable, places.”
The endangerment of languages is not exclusive to “far-off lands.” National Geographic reports: “Languages like Wintu, a native tongue in California, or Siletz Dee-ni, in Oregon, or Amurdak, an Aboriginal tongue in Australia’s Northern Territory, retain only one or two fluent or semi-fluent speakers. A last speaker with no one to talk to exists in unspeakable solitude.” There is even an endangerment hotspot in Oklahoma. What insights do we lose forever when a language disappears?
For many of these languages, words and expressions are so culture-specific they are entirely untranslatable into a wider-known language like English. Much like when an animal or plant goes extinct, a great deal is lost when a language disappears. It takes with it components of an entire culture that cannot be captured anywhere else. Many see language as a key to identity, but there is a self-serving component too—learning about the world’s undocumented languages could also teach us about ourselves, according to theoretical linguists.
“Languages can disappear in an instant—such as when a small, geographically vulnerable community is struck by a tsunami—but most die a slow death, often victim of bilingual culture,” says the magazine’s release.
“More than a thousand are listed as critically or severely endangered—teetering on the edge of oblivion,” explains National Geographic, in language that seems reserved for animal species.
David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, says: “The rate of language extinction far exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish or plants and that language loss often parallels loss of biological species,” according to same release.
Blame globalization, television and the advent of the internet, but the internet is also making strides to preserve these languages and what they represent. Harrison says this is the upside of globalization: the ability to come in and record, share and teach aspects of these languages.
“Language activists now have modern digital tools with which to go on the offensive, including iPhone apps, YouTube videos and Facebook pages,” reports NPR. How we interact on the computer and similar devices heavily influences how we think of our language.
However, parents in small tribal villages often encourage their children to learn languages which will guarantee greater success in the world. Perhaps there’s an appealing quaintness to seeking out obscure languages, some of which have as few as one speaker, but as National Geographic points out: “Prosperity, it seems, speaks English.”
In Oregon, one Siletz speaker, Bud Lane, cautions technology alone cannot save endangered languages. Though tribal youth are now texting each other in Siletz, NPR reports. And what ultimately defines a language’s stabilization? Is it having a newspaper (as Tuvan does)?
Furthermore, some languages are verbal only, so how do we preserve them in a dictionary, for instance, without imposing something else upon them? How do we ensure native speakers have a hand in determining how to write such a language?
Interestingly, diversely populated cities like New York experience a sort of reverse microcosmic phenomenon with respect to endangered languages. Eight hundred different languages are spoken in New York City, making it the most linguistically diverse city in the world. It would make sense to assume the rapidly-gentrifying New York would push ethnic minorities and endangered languages to the borders, with people striving to learn English to survive, but its effect has—perhaps counterintuitively—been to preserve.
Despite recent surges in gentrification, “The chances of overhearing a conversation in Vlashki, a variant of Istro-Romanian, are greater in Queens than in the remote mountain villages in Croatia that immigrants now living in New York left years ago,” reports a New York Times article from two years ago. There are many languages that similarly are more likely to be heard in a corner of the City than anywhere else in the world.
“At a Roman Catholic Church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, Mass is said once a month in Garifuna, an Arawakan language that originated with descendants of African slaves shipwrecked near St. Vincent in the Caribbean and later exiled to Central America,“ reports the same Times article. “Today, Garifuna is virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize.”
Rego Park, Queens, is home to 67-year-old Husni Husain, who, as far he knows, is the only person in New York, his family included, who speaks Mamuju, the Austronesian language he learned growing up in the Indonesian province of West Sulawesi.
Despite the City’s preserving effect, we are then also sitting on an “endangerment hotspot” in the New York melting pot, as many of these languages will undoubtedly not be around much longer.
In addition to many Native American languages, endangered foreign languages researchers say can be found in New York, according to the Times, include: Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian Jewish language); Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands); Irish Gaelic; Kashubian (from Poland); indigenous Mexican languages; Pennsylvania Dutch; Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland); Romany (from the Balkans); and Yiddish.
The Times also reported researchers planned to canvass a tiny Afghan neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, for Ormuri, which is believed to be spoken by a small number of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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