Endangered languages; lost knowledge

September 25, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Stephane & GeraldineThe International Herald Tribune had an interesting piece recently on vanishing languages. I often joke with my two step-kids, who are French, that their language will be kaput by the end of the 21st Century (well, maybe the Breton language is vulnerable). But it does seem that some of the many rich, colourful and historically important languages that humans speak around the world are teetering on the verge of extinction. This might be more catastrophic than species disappearing.

It seems that between 50 and 90% of the world’s 6,992 languages will cease to exist by 2100. French used to be the lingua franca of diplomats but not anymore. English dominates – it’s the language of commerce and technology and is spread by globalisation – and is only rivalled by Chinese and maybe Spanish.

When a language vanishes, so does the vast body of knowledge associated with that language and the many words and nuances that a people use to describe relationships or concepts. The Inuit word for “know”, for example, shows the many subtleties of a language. Utsimavaa means he or she knows from experience, whilst nalunaiqpaa means he or she is no longer unaware of something.

It seems that 5 regions are vulnerable to language extinction: Northern Australia, central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia and Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. The National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages have travelled far and wide to revitalise or maintain languages at risk. They found Charlie, an Australian Aboriginal, who appears to be the last speaker of Amurdag, a language in the Northern Territory that had already been declared extinct. You can watch a video of Charlie speaking Amurdag here on the National Geographic site.

The project is called Enduring Voices. Many languages are not in written form and when the elderly die off, so does the language. So linguists are busy recording a 100-200 word list of basic words and then move onto grammatical structure. It seems Australia harbours some of the most vulnerable languages with 153 different dialects spoken amongst indigenous people.

There is of course the famous story of 18th Century German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, who was travelling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela and stumbled on a Carib Indian tribe. The tribe’s pet parrots were speaking a totally different dialect to their owners and von Humboldt learned that the parrots had belonged to another tribe – the Maypure – who the Carib had snuffed out and so the parrots ironically were the sole surviving speakers of the Maypure language.

Languages are complex adaptive systems, so yes, languages come and go, but they are now disappearing at the rate of one language every two weeks. Can you imagine a world in which we only speak English? My step-kids would be appalled, they’re not great fans of a language of Anglo-Saxon/Germanic origin.

Languages are very resilient though. Apparently, there is a secret language spoken by the Kallawaya of the Andes region. They speak Spanish or Quechua in daily life, but they have a secret tongue mainly for preserving knowledge of medicinal plants, some previously unknown to science. How this secret language, spoken only by a few people, has survived for over 400 years is a bit of a mystery to linguists.

Maybe we need to train up lots of brainy parrots like Alex, the African grey parrot, who snuffed it last week. Because they might be the last speakers of dying languages if we don’t make efforts to preserve vanishing dialects.

Mark Abley has written a great book you should read: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. And from a BBC item, here are some words from threatened languages:

  • Coghal – big lump of dead flesh after a wound is opened (Manx)
  • Tkhetsikhe’tenhawihtennihs – I am bringing sugar to somebody (Mohawk)
  • Puijilittatuq – he does not know which way to turn because of the many seals he has seen come to the ice surface (Inuktitut – Canadian Arctic)
  • Nartutaka – small plum-like fruit for which there is no English word (Wangkajunga, Central Australia).

And finally, here’s a map showing language hotspots.

Image credit: National Geographic


Entry filed under: Knowledge Management, Languages. Tags: , .

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