Illustration by Chaim Garcia
There are currently over 2,000 endangered languages in the world on the brink of extinction, and the rate at which languages and dialects are dying is alarming. According to National Geographic, a language vanishes from the face of the earth every 14 days, and few leave any recognizable traces. These languages tend to only be spoken by a few elders of small communities, and — since learning a dying language rarely appeals to people trying to secure their place in a global economy — younger generations aren’t even bothering to learn these languages from their parents or grandparents. Most of these endangered languages also lack a writing system, making their preservation an even more daunting challenge.
So what are the most vulnerable languages on Earth, and what’s being done to save them?
These four languages are under threat of completely disappearing within a few generations.
HANTI: less than 10,000 speakers
Divided into three main group dialects and spoken mostly in Western Siberia, Hanti is a language in survival mode: its native speakers now number less than ten thousand.
Hanti has an evidentiality system, which requires the speaker to indicate grammatically whether they have witnessed something themselves or acquired the knowledge through hearsay. This fascinating feature gives Hanti speakers a unique perception of facts and reality, something particularly relevant in the current era of fake news.
ONGOTA: 12 speakers
Ongota is spoken in Southwest Ethiopia by 12 elders. It is a dying language and chances are that it will be replaced by its closest competitor, the Tsamai language. There is already a lot of code switching between Ongota and Tsamai – but Tsamai is clearly dominant. As the Ongota men married into the Ts’amakko tribe, Ts’amakko mothers would teach the next generation their language, Tsamai. Kids wouldn’t learn Ongota from their fathers – they had stopped speaking it to avoid scorn from Ts’amakko, who look down on the Ongota way of life: they do not own cattle and subsist mostly as hunter-gatherers.
It’s fascinating to realize that affluence affects the level of prestige attributed to a language in so many disparate world cultures.
S’AOCH: ten speakers
The vertiginous linguistic disappearance proceeds in Cambodia, a country where 19 languages are facing extinction this century. One of them, S’aoch, has only ten fluent speakers left in a village of 110 people. This once stable culture was decimated by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The communist regime snatched the S’aochs from their land and locked them up in labor camps; forbade them from speaking their own language and killed their culture and religion in the process, breaking the animist bond they themselves perceived to celebrate with the land. The survivors, now incapable of self-sufficiency, fled to the coast to sell their labor, condemned to poverty and the imminent extinction of their culture. The denigration of their language and traditions has been totally assimilated by the members of the group, who refer to themselves as taowk, i.e. “of no value”. They show no desire for language maintenance, since their own tongue has no prestige.
NJEREP: four speakers
The Mambila village of Somie in Adamawa Province, Cameroon, is home to a handful of people who can utter a few words and sentences in Njerep. They are no longer “semi-speakers,” but “rememberers” of a language, which, in its dying stages, has been used mostly for greetings, songs, jokes and the sharing of secrets. Documentation made public in the year 2000 found that only four people in the late 1990s used Njerep at home and only one elderly person in the group, Mial, could converse in it.
In a song documented by researchers, Mial veered from the usual, traditional themes — historical events passed down orally — to complain that the youth show contempt and disdain for Njerep, laughing whenever Mial uses it to communicate. This explains the constant code switching observed by researchers, with Njerep used sparsely by speakers who now favored other languages. A fifth person, allegedly the most fluent Njerep speaker, died in 1998.
Languages with only one speaker left
Some languages float in limbo. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists 18 with only one speaker, among them Apiaka, Diahoi and Kaixana in Brazil; Patwin, Pazeh, Tolowa and Wintu-Nomlaki in the USA; Dampal and Take in Indonesia; and Bikya and Bishuo in Cameroon — these last two haven’t been documented since 1986, so their current status is unknown.
Saving Endangered Languages
In this landscape of stunning loss, hope keeps surfacing in institutions and projects that try to salvage what is left. In the mid-1990s, linguists scrambled to document languages in the face of a frightening rate of extinction. Alarmed by the imminent demise of so many languages — and armed with new digital technology able to register, collect, archive, analyze and disseminate information efficiently — they proceeded to raise funds, create projects, pressure lawmakers and build institutions to avoid and repair as much damage as possible.
The E.L.D.P. was founded in 2002 with the aim of preserving languages threatened by extinction. It not only funds individual projects developed by scholars, it also provides training in London and around the world to help prepare the methodology required for research work. It has funded over 300 different projects, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Central and South America.
One of those projects was Graziano Sava’s documentation of Ongota. Sava arrived at the village only speaking the contact language, Ts’amakko. His research, recording live audio of Ongota, even inspired a documentary which shows Sava interacting with — and being chastised by! — the speakers who patiently attempt to communicate with him.
This initiative began its work in 2005 and has developed projects in 15 different countries. Their methodology includes training native speakers to record words and phrases in their own languages. This information is used to create “Talking Dictionaries” with thousands of words and images. Empowering locals, the institute provides them with skills allowing them to become research assistants and representatives of their own languages.
The institute believes in community ownership of intellectual property. They send copies of the material collected to the communities they research, and allow them to make the final decision on what can be disclosed publicly. They also make their dictionaries available online (there are more than 100 to browse for free!).
The U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services is responsible for this federal program. This initiative provides funding to tribes, villages, corporations and organizations, helping to sustain traditions, knowledge and languages. One project funded by the program is the digitization of a dictionary with audio recordings for the Quinault Indian Nation. Another is the development of a permanent interactive exhibition in the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum named “Thanksgiving Address,” including audio recordings of Seneca Nation members speaking the Seneca language.
This program, created by the Smithsonian, develops the same kind of initiatives, which also include an annual film festival with films representing different languages all over the world and the efforts to revitalize them. Their attempts have triggered positive results, such as the revitalization of the language spoken by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma through written documentation collected a century ago.
Headquartered in New York City, the E.L.A. focuses on linguistic communities in New York itself — home to more than 800 languages. You can read our extensive interview with the ELA’s Assistant Director, Ross Perlin.
This bears the question: are there resounding successes in the revitalization of languages? Well, yes indeed! Here is an uplifting example…
A Success Story: Revitalizing Hawaiian
Hawaiian’s story is intimately linked with colonization. The language remained unwritten until 1814, when a native Hawaiian living in England wrote his own spelling book, grammar and dictionary for the language. By the 1820s, a standardized form of the written language was widely adopted in Hawaii. Soon enough, Hawaii was printing its own newspaper and publishing its own translation of the Bible. In the 1840s, day schools were inaugurated and the Hawaii Department of Education was established. This institutionalized systematization of reading and writing led to a very high level of literacy in Hawaii in a short amount of time — but it also triggered damaging racial and class divisions. English, the language of the educated, gained prestige and Hawaiian gradually lost cultural influence. A succession of events led to Hawaiian being outlawed in 1896, culminating in the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1898. The situation reached bizarre proportions when Hawaiian was introduced as a foreign language in the new University of Hawaii in 1922!
But academics, teachers and scholars started reevaluating the language in 1950s, studying the culture and traditions of the Hawaiian people, compiling an extensive dictionary, inspiring students in schools to learn the language (which was still spoken by their grandparents), motivating university students to enroll in Hawaiian language courses, broadcasting radio shows and many other efforts — culminating in Hawaiians return to official language status, alongside English, in 1978. Schools teaching in Hawaiian were subsequently founded and new laws were passed to further the official use and dissemination of the language. By the 1990s, websites in Hawaiian began to surface and, after a 100-year hiatus, students once again graduated high school with Hawaiian as their first language.
The 21st century has seen MAs and Doctorates in Hawaiian Language and Literature, written in both English and in Hawaiian. The State of Hawaii’s Board of Education is now fully committed to the promotion of the Hawaiian language through immersion. Hawaiian has fully resurfaced!
Minority languages on the rise
Hawaiian is not the only language that has been revitalized. Maori in New Zealand and Hebrew in Israel have also been resounding successes, while Cornish in England shows promising growth as a “reawakening” language.
The purpose of documenting languages must not simply be to pin them to the wall like butterflies. Linguistic diversity is seen by linguists as akin to biodiversity. The extinction of numerous species of flora and fauna leaves us less fit for survival, just like the extinction of a language yet to be studied closes the gateway to knowledge about plants, the environment and insights into the human mind we have not yet been able to fathom.
The preservation of knowledge signifies the possibility of successfully revitalizing declining or abandoned cultures. Consequently, we shouldn’t talk about “dead” languages once they’re documented extensively. They’re only momentarily in a coma or frozen cryogenically, waiting for a more enlightened time when their uniqueness and beauty will be celebrated instead of scorned.