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Preserving Languages

Every two weeks, another language disappears from the world forever. According to National Geographic, more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to be extinct by the year 2100. According to Laura Welcher, a linguist with the Long Now Foundation, some experts believe the situation is even more dire, and that 90% of all languages currently spoken will be extinct by the end of the century.

Via the foundation’s Rosetta Project, Welcher is trying to use technology to preserve as many of these languages as possible.  People sometimes question whether dying languages are even worth the effort of trying to save. In an interview with Fast Company, Welcher gave an eloquent explanation:

“If languages are our how-to guides for living on planet earth, and we stand to lose up to 90% of them, then that seems like we are looking at handing our descendants an encyclopedia of human life on Earth with all of the pages ripped out, except sections X, Y, and Z.”

So, how do we preserve sections A through W? Traditionally, linguists have worked one-on-one with speakers of endangered languages, making recordings, encoding rules for grammar and compiling dictionaries. Through the use of technology like cell phones and webcams, Welker envisions a future in which people can document the languages they speak on their own, quickly building storehouses of knowledge for linguists to sift through and organize. She told Fast Company: Read more

Why Are There So Many Languages?

Why Are There So Many Languages? 

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world today. But why? Why are there so many languages?

It’s an ancient question, almost as old as humanity itself.  Explanations for why people speak so many languages are common in myths from cultures around the world. The story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible is one well-known example, but there are many others.

The truth is, we don’t have an easy answer for why people speak so many languages. That’s probably because there isn’t one.  Instead, linguistic diversity is a response to a variety of different elements that we’re only beginning to understand.  We may not have an answer, but here are 6 factors that encourage new languages to form.

Language May Have Developed In More Than One Place

Did humans ever speak just one language? We don’t know. There are two schools of thought:

  • Monogenesis, which holds that all languages evolved from a single ancestral language as ancient humans migrated out of Africa.
  • Polygenesis, which holds that multiple ancestral languages developed independently, as did agriculture and the domestication of animals.

So there may have been quite a bit of language diversity right from the start. But even if there was a single common human language to start out, humans would still speak thousands of different languages. That’s because . . .

People Move, and Languages Change

The main reason why there are so many languages has to do with distance and time. Groups of people are always on the move, seeking new opportunities. And languages change over time, too. Even English. Do remember trying to read Chaucer for the first time?  English has changed so much over the centuries that it’s difficult for modern English speakers to “get” Chaucer without footnotes.

What happens when you combine these two factors? Groups of people who speak a common language get divided by distance, and over time their dialects evolve in different directions. After enough time passes, they end up speaking two separate, but related languages. Read more

New Online Projects Preserve Endangered Languages 

Between 50-90% of the languages being spoken today may very well be extinct by 2100. Some will be extinct much sooner than that-we lose one language every two weeks! The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages seeks to preserve endangered languages both online and in the communities they come from, and they have a couple of interesting new projects going on.

First, there’s a collaboration with streaming video site Viki, which uses crowdsourcing to translate subtitles for movies and TV shows into a variety of different languages. Viki is partnering with Living Tongues to help encourage speakers of endangered languages to translate subtitles. By doing so, they help build a record of the languages and keep them relevant for younger speakers. So far, content on Viki has been translated into 29 endangered or threatened languages and 20 “emerging languages,” according to a press release.

Living Tongues Director of Research David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore, told The Atlantic that partnering with Viki could help people who speak these languages to take pride in their native tongue:

“Suddenly you have something that isn’t a dry textbook or a grammar lesson,” he says. “Seeing it on TV or on the Internet helps them see that it’s not backwards or obsolete, it’s suited for the modern world. They can restore their pride in the language, which is really the X factor that causes language to be abandoned.”

Of course, the partnership with Viki does little for those languages only spoken by people in the remote communities, out of the reach of the world wide web.

For those languages, Living Tongues creates Talking Dictionaries available online. Two new Talking Dictionaries were released this month, as part of a collaboration with National Geographic. These dictionaries preserve the vocabulary and sounds of endangered languages while providing scholars around the world with easy access.

The newest Talking Dictionaries preserve two highly endangered languages from Papua New Guinea: Yokoim,  which is spoken by less than 2,000 people in three small villages, and Panim, spoken by 400 people in only village. Learn more about the languages and listen to some vocabulary words on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal.

 

Texting in Endangered Languages

If you’re trying to preserve an endangered language, technology can be both your best friend and your worst enemy. More and more frequently, however, technology has become an ally in the quest to keep indigenous languages alive. Apps and computer programs have been developed to bring these previously left-behind languages into the digital age. That makes it easier and more practical for people to keep using them.

Indigenous Language Institute executive director Inée Slaughter explained this sea change to the New York Times:

“For a long time, technology was the enemy.  Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language. Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that. It was a huge, huge problem, and it’s still there. But now we know ways technology can be helpful.” Read more

20 Endangered British Languages

English may be the third most common language in the world in terms of native speakers, but other British languages aren’t faring nearly as well. In fact, the Telegraph reports that Cambridge University has just put together a database that includes 20 British languages that are either endangered or believed to be extinct. Some evolved here, some were brought here, but all once had active, vibrant communities in the UK.

Here’s a little bit about some of the endangered/extinct languages on the list that are native to the UK:

Old Kentish Sign Language: Now extinct, this was a type of sign language once used in Kent. In some communities in Kent, many children were born deaf, and this sign language let them communicate with hearing friends and family.

 

Polari: Derived from elements of English, Italian, Romani and other languages, this was a code language spoken by circus and carnival performers, and by homosexuals at a time when homosexual relationships carried stiff legal penalties. When gay relationships became legal, there was no longer a need to use it. Plus, mainstream exposure ensured that it no longer served its purpose as a secret language.

 

Cornish: In the 18th century, Cornish died out completely. However, it has since been revived and now there are at least 2,000 people who speak Cornish fluently. It is still classified as “critically endangered.” Read more

The Top 10 Most Endangered Languages in Europe

Every 14 days, another language falls silent forever. Linguists warn that in the next century, anywhere from 50-90% of all the languages in the world will be lost. While many of these languages are in developing countries, some are in Europe and even in the UK.

Before they disappear forever, let’s take a look at the 10 most endangered languages in Europe.

Endangered Languages in Europe: Cappadocian Greekcappadocian_greek_homeland

Country: Greece

Number of native speakers: 2,800

Cappadocian Greek is spoken by the descendants of the Cappadocian Greeks who were forced to move from Turkey to Greece in the 1920s.

Cappadocian Greek evolved during the time of the Byzantine Empire. Like the rest of the empire, the people of Cappadocia, Turkey spoke Medieval Greek. However, in 1071, Byzantine forces lost the Battle of Mazikert, and the area around Cappadocia was taken over by Turkish speakers.

The Greek speakers kept their language, but it evolved separately from the rest of the Greek-speaking world and was heavily influenced by Turkish.

After the Cappadocian Greeks were moved back to Greece, most of them learned to speak standard Greek.

Fun fact: Scholars thought that the Cappadocian variant had died out in the 1960s. But in 2005,  researchers from Ghent University and the University of Patras found around 2,800 Greeks of Cappadocian descent who still spoke the language. Read more

Atlas

UNESCO to Release New Language Atlas

Earlier today, the AP reported on UNESCO’s release of the third edition of its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The atlas is available online for free, and a print version will be released in May.

The atlas maps the location and gives details about each of the 2,500 languages that linguists classify as endangered or are already extinct.

According to UNESCO, these languages will probably vanish before the end of the century if efforts are not made to preserve them now.

What languages are on the list, and where are they spoken?

Endangered languages are everywhere, actually. If you look up UK on the Atlas, you’ll see 12 languages. Four of these, Norn, Manx, Cornish and Alderney French, are already extinct. Scots and Welsh are rated as “unsafe,” while Yiddish, Romany, Irish and Scottish Gaelic show up as “definitely endangered.” Guernsey French and Jersey French are severely endangered.

The US has 191 endangered languages, mostly belonging to Native American tribes like the Menominee, which has 35 native speakers remaining. Sioux, the language of the great Native American chief Sitting Bull, is listed as “unsafe” with 25,000 speakers.

Then, there are languages like Silbo Gomero, spoken by about 1,000 people on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. This language is made up entirely of whistles, to help shepherds communicate over long distances on the island. However, Silbo Gomero may benefit from the efforts of Busuu.com, a language learning website based in Spain that teaches endangered languages to people all over the world.

Can the Internet help preserve this language?

In the Associated Press article referenced above, Francoise Riviere, deputy director of culture at UNESCO, said “We are trying to teach people that the language of the country from where we come is important, and what counts is being proud of one’s own language.”

Hopefully, projects like Busuu.com can help people learn to take pride in their native languages. Having people across the globe learn endangered languages like Silbo Gomero can certainly help preserve a record of the language, but what’s really important is that the people of La Gomera keep speaking it and passing along to their children.

Preserving languages isn’t just about the number of speakers-it’s also about keeping the culture of the people speaking the language intact.

A New York Woman’s Quest to Preserve Quechua

Quechua is the most widely spoken group of indigenous languages in South America. However, in a world where Spanish predominates, it is extremely vulnerable.

Quechua is a group of closely related languages and dialects spoken by 8 to 10 million people in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It was the language of the old Incan Empire. 8 to 10 million people may seem like a lot, but that’s for all languages in the family, and a glance at UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows that even the healthiest Quechua languages are “vulnerable,”  and several are already extinct.

Quechua’s prestige began to decline during the late 18th century, when the Spanish banned it from public use after an indigenous rebellion led by Tupac Amaru II.  Although Quechua is now an official language in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru,  it never really recovered. Bruce Mannheim, an anthropology professor  at the University of Michigan, described its current status to the Wall Street Journal:

“Quechua speakers in urban areas make sure their children speak Spanish,” he said. “And their grandchildren only speak Spanish.…Among the different languages, there are a number of them that are threatened with extinction within this generation.”

However, an initiative to preserve the language is coming from an unlikely place: the kitchen table of a 73-year old Brooklyn grandmother.

Elva Ambía grew up speaking Quechua during her childhood in Peru. In 2012, she founded the New York Quechua Initiative to promote the language through musical and cultural events, educational programs and Quechua classes held in Ms. Ambia’s home.  The group has also donated a collection of books about Quechua to the Brooklyn library.

Ms. Ambia told the Wall Street Journal she is confident the language will survive:

“I do not believe Quechua is dying. I cannot accept that. If I am alive, I am going to make it alive.”

Photo Credit:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Cédric Liénart

China Says Linguistic Diversity “Not Important”

Over 1.3 billion people live in China, speaking a variety of different languages and dialects. To help unify such a diverse country, the government has long promoted the use of China’s official language, Mandarin. As a consequence, though, China’s linguistic diversity is fading. 88 Chinese languages are endangered, according to the Globe and Mail, and the Chinese government doesn’t seem particularly interested in preserving them.

The upcoming census could have been used to help quantify the problem, simply by asking respondents to select the languages they speak.  However, questions about language were not included in the form.

Chen Xizhou, a minority language expert from the Yunnan Institute for Nationalities, told the Globe and Mail:

“They didn’t ask about something that we really need to know, but they did ask how many houses people have and how many rooms. I don’t know why that is.”

It appears Chen Xizhou can stop wondering. Fang Nailin, the Vice Director of the census, answered that question for the Globe and Mail: the government simply decided that gathering the information was “not important.” Read more

8 Critically Endangered Languages of South America

When you think of South American languages, you probably think of Spanish and Portuguese. But South America is actually one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, with over 448 languages from 37 different language families.

Unfortunately, however, many of those languages may soon fall silent. UNESCO classifies 108 South American languages as “critically endangered,” the last step before extinction. Some only have one living speaker. Others have almost no documentation- once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

Here’s the scoop on 8 of these critically endangered languages of South America.

Tehuelche (Argentina)

Number of speakers: 4

Tehuelche is the original language of the Tehuelche people of Patagonia. When the Spanish began to explore Argentina, they encountered giant footprints in the mud and believed they were exploring a land of giants.

Of course, the footprints weren’t those of giant Patagones.  There were left by the moccasin-clad Tehuelche people, going about their business and speaking the Tehuelche language. Today, only 4 Tehuelche speakers remain. The language began to decline in the late 1500s, when many of the Tehuelche tribes began speaking Mapudungun, the language of their Mapuche neighbours, instead. The Spanish conquest sealed the deal, as even the tribes who continued to speak Tehuelche began to speak Spanish.

Pacahuara (Bolivia)

Number of speakers: Somewhere between 4 and 96

Once, the Pacahuara people roamed the Amazon. But the rubber industry decimated them. Now, only a small handful remain, in 2 groups. One group was relocated by Christian missionaries in the 1970s. Only a few elderly members of this group still speak the Pacahuara language. They are often referred to as the “last Pacahuaras.” You can hear their language in this BBC broadcast from 2013.

There is also a group of “uncontacted” Pacahuaras that has refused contact with the rest of the world. Experts believe they number about 50 people in total.

Arikapú (Brazil)

Number of speakers (2)

Until the 20th century, the Arikapú people lived in the Brazilian rainforest, uncontacted by Western civilization. They hunted, fished, gathered and grew some crops. They also bred various types of edible insects, using the larvae as food.

But Western diseases decimated the Arikapú, and many of the survivors were exploited by the rubber industry and relocated to reservations by the government. Today, only 2 Arikapú speakers remain. The rest of the ethnic Arikapú now speak Tuparí and Portuguese.

Guarasu (Brazil and Bolivia)

Number of speakers: (4)

Attempts to collect data on this language in 2015 failed when linguists were unable to get on good terms with the Guarasu chief. The chief, Sara Durán, thought they were working with political enemies and told the linguists, “You don’t know me, we are wild and when I get angry, I take out my arrow… I have many skulls in my yard.”

Guató (Brazil)

Number of speakers: (4)

The Guató people used to be widespread in the southwest region of Mato Grosso, Brazil. They were known as “canoe people” and tended to live along lakes. But settlers in their territory brought smallpox and other diseases, and cattle ranches encroached on their traditional lands. Now only 4 Guató speakers remain.

Kanoê (Brazil)

Number of speakers (5) 

There are two groups of Kanoê Indians living in Brazil- one group, which is integrated into mainstream Brazilian society, and one isolated group that was uncontacted until recently. Only 3 of the first group speak their native language.

Of the second group, only a single family remains. This group sought refuge in the forest, pursued by loggers and ranchers who wanted free use of the land. The ranchers attacked them with bulldozers, and took down their houses and gardens, all the while denying that there were any indigenous people in the forest to begin with.

One day, the men of the Kanoê tribe left on an expedition. According to Povos Indigenas no Brazil,  they hoped to find neighbouring indigenous tribes and negotiate marriages for their daughters. They never came back.  When the women realized that all of their husbands and older sons had died, they decided to commit mass suicide. One woman, Tutuá, changed her mind at the last minute, and saved herself, her son, her daughter, her sister and her niece.

The man singing in the video above is her son, Pura.

 

Oro Win (Brazil)

Number of speakers: 6

The Oro Win live in Rondônia, Brazil. They were enslaved by rubber tappers in the 1960s, then forced off their lands in the 1980s. In 1991, they were finally given their land back and were able to return. But by that time, their language had almost completely disappeared. This language has a bit more hope than most of the others on this list, as the Oro Win have begun to teach it in schools.

Yaghan (Chile)

Number of speakers: (1)

The Yaghan people once lived in Tierra del Fuego, where they stunned European explorers by walking around mostly naked despite the frigid temperatures, gathering around the fires that gave Tierra del Fuego its name. But European diseases took their toll, and European settlers took their land. Now, 90-year-old Cristina Calderon is the last speaker.

That said, she’s been working with linguists for years to record and preserve the language. And now that the atmosphere toward native languages has become more welcoming, Yaghan is being taught in local kindergartens.

If nothing else, Yagan is likely to live on as a piece of internet trivia. The word “mamihlapinatapai,” usually translated as “To look at each other, hoping that either will offer to do something, which both parties much desire done but are unwilling to do,” has made its way into various online articles of untranslatable words.

It may be too late for many of the languages on this list, but many other minority languages still have a shot at survival. At K International, we’re all in favour of language preservation, and one way to do that is to make it easier for people to use their native languages in daily life. If you’re looking for a quote on a translation project, check out the services we offer and feel free to contact us. We’d love to hear from you!