UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists 2,464 languages as “endangered or newly extinct” since the 1950s, whilst the website endangeredlanguages.com maintains a list of over 3,000. According to the New York Times, 37 languages have gone extinct in Peru alone in the last century. These statistics are overwhelming as our language is the very core of our civilisation, culture, heritage, and the way we think. With approximately 6,500 languages in the world today (around 35 per country on average), to have over a third being endangered leaves me, perhaps not surprised, but certainly disheartened, wanting to provide an insight into and awareness of some of these endangered languages.
These languages, which are often indigenous, risk being lost to history, victims of a previously colonised, currently urbanising world. The list of endangered languages has categorisations, ranging from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered,” and a section for languages that have become extinct since the 1950s. Languages such as Kawishana, Taushiro, Pawnee, and Njerep are only a few examples of critically endangered languages; each of them is thought to have less than five native speakers. The last few remaining speakers of these native tongues have to watch on as their children and grandchildren are brought up speaking a more widely understood language, must be unimaginably difficult.
Amadeo García García, profiled by the New York Times in 2017, became the last speaker of Taushiro, a language of the Peruvian Amazon, after his brother’s death. With this, he became the last custodian of his culture, unable to communicate with others except by his limited knowledge of Spanish. García has been working with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture to create a database of the language and some of its literature to preserve its legacy. The pressure of this responsibility must weigh heavily on these last few remaining people with an unexpected burden of cultural responsibility. Similarly, Maxine Wildcat Barnett, after her sister’s death, became the last remaining tribal elder able to speak fluent Yuchi, an indigenous language of the Native American Yuchi tribe based in present day Oklahoma, a language with no known relative among other indigenous languages – a linguistic isolate. She died on 27 August, 2021, aged 96, after living as a beacon of Yuchi culture and identity, helping to preserve its traditions, songs, culture, and family life. While she learned English at school, Barnett’s grandmother insisted on speaking Yuchi at home and Barnett later described her language as what was keeping her going. Even though she clearly enjoyed sharing Yuchi culture and traditions, as their sole representative, Barnett was tasked with the responsibility and expectation to forge a future legacy.
Scottish Gaelic, Irish, and Māori are more well-known examples of endangered or vulnerable languages, though not yet facing as severe a threat as the aforementioned critical cases. They are classed as such because of the risk posed to them by the spread of English and its dominant presence in these countries. Even mainstream foreign languages are undermined by the English language’s prolificacy: European languages such as French or German experience Anglicisation, rending a lot of traditional terms null and void, and consequently unifying the way the world considers one thing. In different languages, there is nuance to each word’s purpose; if humanity eventually merges into using one language, it would be a crude monoculturalisation.
On our own shores, we can see efforts to protect and revitalise Scottish Gaelic. If you had enjoyed yourself a little too much on Halloween last week, you might have found yourself getting a lift home in a vehicle with both ‘Poileas’ and ‘Police’ written on its bonnet. This is just one example of the Gaelic language plan produced by the Scottish government. In the 2021 version, published in July this year, the plan set out its aims to increase the general use of Gaelic and promote opportunities to learn Gaelic in schools across the country. The plan additionally looks to increase the use of Gaelic in public settings, on signs, and in official public meetings and to print high-profile news, and all news that relates to the Gaelic language, bilingually. There are also efforts to ensure that Gaelic speakers are provided with sufficient opportunities to live and work in communities where they can speak it, especially in the Highlands and islands. Gaelic research and education are also available at many universities in Scotland and, whilst it is not a main degree programme here at St Andrews, it is offered as an evening class and will hopefully be an option in the future. The increased time and investment of money into Gaelic has helped slow down the decline in the number of Gaelic speakers and can hopefully reverse the trend one day.
The protection of dwindling or at-risk languages has become a focus for a lot of communities. Even well-established languages, such as Québécois French, have stringent measures in place to prevent the demise of French in Canada. Bill 101 – Charter of the French Language – was established to render French the official language of government and law, as well as everyday work. Quebec goes so far as to mandate the “sufficient presence of French” on permanent signs, including businesses. In Quebec, the fast food chain KFC uses the name PFK (“Poulet Frit Kentucky”) to comply with these regulations. Whilst Québécois French is far from being an endangered language, the local government is determined not to let it become one.
New Zealand has its own version of this act, the Māori Language Act, giving official status to the language and allowing its use in legal settings. However, whilst Quebec’s Bill 101 is a government-led proposal, the Māori Language Act was the result of passionate campaigning by Māori people to push for their language and culture not to be lost as so many have been before them.
Further examples include Tahitian, a Polynesian language, which, again, is not classed as endangered, but, after French colonial rule prevented teaching Tahitian in schools, French is now the predominant language. In Tahiti, there are now efforts to promote and revitalise Tahitian language and culture. UNICEF also invests in indigenous communities and their traditional languages. There is a programme in Bolivia for the introduction of bilingual teaching, combining Spanish and traditional Quechuan in order for the younger generation to appreciate and continue the cultural heritage of their ancestors.
In 2019, Duolingo added Navajo and Hawaiian to its site to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day. It is vitally important to see large corporations taking an interest in promoting the future of indigenous languages. It shows that language not only need to be protected through laws and mandates, but also can be fun and taken on as a hobby. Duolingo is the most downloaded educational app in the world, offering many languages including Star Trek’s Klingon and Game of Thrones’ High Valyrian. However, perhaps we should be concerned that there are more people who understand and take an interest in mythical/fictional languages such as Elvish, Klingon, or High Valyrian than certain indigenous languages with long histories yet only a handful of speakers remaining.
Languages evolve, change and expand naturally; however, the main reasons behind the demise of so many indigenous languages have been either partially or entirely created by humanity and its imperialist history. Countries with the largest number of endangered languages are often former colonies of Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal’s respective empires.
We have caused this problem, so we need to be passionately active about saving these indigenous languages and their cultures. We cannot hide away from the fact that their preservation will be difficult, but it should be written into law following the Québécois and Scottish models, investing in preservation, education and awareness. Perhaps another solution lies in obliging former colonial powers to invest in areas that clearly show deterioration of culture due to imperialistic endeavours. Attempts to preserve language and culture across the globe – like those in Bolivia, Peru, Oklahoma, Canada, Scotland, and New Zealand – should be praised and supported because they are important not only to those from that culture but to everyone. The world as we know it is born from, and functions because of, thousands of cultures growing together. We should, therefore, surely seek to avoid an existence where this is hindered because thousands of languages have been allowed to fall freely by the wayside.
Illustration: Bethany Morton