Vocalized Expressions of Humanness

“Iktsuarpok” is a word with no direct English translation. From Inuit, it best translates to “the frustration of waiting for someone to show up.” It is a word imbued with special meaning, and a word that may now be threatened. The Endangered Languages Project classifies the Inuit language as “vulnerable,” with only around 20,000 speakers. For iktsuarpok, it seems, time may be running out.

Uncommonly pithy words that native English speakers struggle to pronounce, like “iktsuarpok,” are often presented to the general public as reasons for saving endangered languages. If we lose these languages, the argument goes, we lose their beautiful words as well. But Gregory Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, argues that romanticizing unique words from endangered languages is an inadequate way to capture their value to speakers and communities around the world.

In an interview with the HPR, he explained that “there is nothing special, per se, about a language being endangered.” Instead, he carries out his work for different reasons. “We have a fairly narrow set of windows of opportunity to understand how language develops and how humans divide their collective experience and metaphorize it,” he said. “The more of these windows that get permanently closed, the less we’ll ever be able to know about what is and what isn’t possible and why.”

It is our “vocalized expression of humanness,” as he calls it, that separates humans from animals. Around the world, the race to document and pass down these expressions is on. Leading the way are students and teachers, emboldened by technology to move away from learning hegemonic languages and instead dedicating their time to protecting endangered languages.

Endangered around the world

Linguists estimate that there are over 6,500 languages in existence today. As many as 2,000 of these languages are spoken by 1,000 people or fewer. This means roughly a third of the world’s languages are vulnerable to extinction, usually brought on by hegemonic languages like English.

Additionally, these “killer languages”, as some linguists call them, are gaining ground in the very places where linguistic diversity is highest and most delicate. In Papua New Guinea, the most linguistically-diverse nation in the world, about 325 of the country’s 800 languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers. In this former British colony, English language proficiency is widely perceived to be superior to proficiency in a local language. Losing a Papuan language to English means losing centuries of cultural values and perspectives along with it.

Modern technology often does more harm than good; it homogenizes and sometimes eliminates linguistic differences that have existed for centuries. Speakers of Icelandic, for example, struggle to find way to use their native tongue on digital devices. Monolithic devices like the iPhone or Amazon’s Alexa don’t understand Icelandic inputs, and GPS units have just as much trouble understanding Icelandic toponyms as American tourists do. This represents an existential threat to the Norse language: if Icelanders can’t use Icelandic on their devices, they will continue to switch to English, as many already have. Former president of Iceland Vigdís Finnbogadóttir worries that the language “will end up in the Latin bin.”

Some, however, are working to curb this trend toward linguistic homogeneity. Ground-breaking educational initiatives are at the heart of this battle for linguistic diversity. In Morocco, where multilingualism is a way of life, most of the population can speak Modern Standard Arabic, the colloquial “Darija” dialect of Arabic, and some French. Some, however, speak a dialect of Tamazight, which is the language of Morocco’s first nomadic settlers. And although Tamazight dialects are spoken by almost 40 percent of the country’s population, the language has little use in education and government, and it is therefore in decline. In 2011, after a long campaign by Amazigh activists, the language was added to the government’s list of official languages and the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM in French) was opened in Rabat.

Mohammed Al-Bouzeggyouy, a Tamazight teacher at IRCAM, believes that the language is in jeopardy. “Now even Moroccans with Amazigh background do not speak the language either because their mothers speak Arabic, or because of their environment,” he told the HPR. That environment is one in which all private and public schools teach in either Arabic or French, and the only official instance of Tamazight in public life seems to be the nightly Tamazight-language news programs sponsored by the government.

Al-Bouzeggyouy says his friends and family love his work because he “defends the language and gives it value” by teaching it to future generations of speakers. But his optimism has limits. “I don’t think that Tamazight will be widely used in Morocco,” he lamented. He believes that the IRCAM was established to slow down the powerful Amazigh movement in Morocco and merely serves the interests of the government.

More languages for more purposes

Despite these tempered expectations, educators like Al-Bouzeggyouy work with a group of students increasingly keen to challenge language-learning norms. Languages have long been seen by students and parents as an essential tool for the global market. With globalization on the rise, the story goes, students who speak multiple international languages will be more successful than their peers. While this story is often beneficial as a motivator to students, its effect on endangered languages is deleterious. Lisa Frumkes, the Senior Director for Content Development at the language software company Rosetta Stone, told the HPR that the modern high school’s focus on French and Spanish “does us all a disservice,” adding,  “I think we need to be teaching more people more languages for more purposes.” Part of that, she believes, involves teaching endangered languages.

Fortunately, students of these languages are finding motives beyond mere academic or financial success. For some, the main motive can be health and wellness. In an interview with the HPR, Mary Linn, the Curator of Cultural and Linguistic Revitalization at the Smithsonian, described the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative of the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma. Through hands-on lessons in sustainable agriculture and community outreach programs, the initiative helps the Mvskoke people put their diet and health in their own hands instead of in the hands of agribusiness. The initiative also hosts Mvskoke language lessons, which teach agricultural terminology in Mvskoke so participants understand the cultural context of the food they’re growing. Thanks to these lessons, students begin to understand that the goals of health and wellness are “really attached with language,” Linn noted. She concluded, “it really has been moving youth towards this ability to say ‘I am a strong person in this culture.’”

For others, better linguistic understanding is an issue not just of cultural value but of legal value. In the 1990s, Judge Gregory Bigler, one of only two judges at the Muscogee Nation’s District Court, started Euchee language classes in his community. In an interview with the HPR, he said that these classes taught students how to “respond and interact in the language.” And although Bigler has passed on the organizing of the classes to the next generation and is not completely fluent in Euchee himself, he has seen immense rewards from the classes over the years. Bigler said that there have been “consistent, coherent attacks” on the sovereignty of tribes based on lack of tribal language fluency. He said the attacks are often along the lines of: “Well, you’re no different than these non-Indians, so why should you have your own tribal government?” Learning Euchee, he maintains, helps them to answer that question and defend their sovereignty. “The continuation into the future is not something that’s going to happen by accident,” he concludes.

What revival meant

In linguistic circles, “Hebrew” seems to be the watchword for endangered language revitalization efforts. In modern world history, it is the only language to have been successfully “revived” on an international scale. Over the course of , Eliezer Ben Yehuda realized his dream that the Hebrew language would go “from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and … become a living language.” While the ancient liturgical language of the Jewish people was once used merely for religious ceremony, it is now spoken by over

But reviving Hebrew took an overwhelming confluence of dedicated effort and world events. In order to revive a language once used mostly at temple, Eliezer Ben Yehuda had to create words for modern terms like “electricity” and “ice cream.” Ben Yehuda also recognized the importance, as other endangered language communities do today, of educational initiatives. At a Jewish school in Jerusalem, Ben Yehuda taught for only a few months, but after his tenure students could still “chatter fluently in Hebrew on daily topics connected with eating and drinking, clothing, daily life and events inside and outside the home.” In today’s Israel, his focus on education lives on; for the first few years of a child’s education, Hebrew is the sole language of instruction.

And although it has meant a lot to millions, the revival came at great cost. Ladino, the language of many Sephardic Jews, is expected to disappear entirely from Israel within just two generations. In order to revive Hebrew, the Israeli government adopted policies to discourage the use of diasporic languages like Ladino. Immigrants to Israel had to adopt a Hebrew name and begin learning Hebrew, which often forced them to abandon languages like Ladino. Karaim, a language once common to Turkish Jews, is in similar peril. The legacy of Hebrew’s revival is marred by the languages left forgotten at Israel’s doorstep.

But for many experts in the field, aspiring to the “wonderful goal” of Hebrew, as Linn phrased it, is unrealistic. She argues that most communities don’t want to reach a point where they solely use their endangered language. Instead, most Native American youth want to be bilingual and simply use their tribe’s language as much as they can.

So instead of looking to the success of other revived languages, some linguists are looking at the success of past social movements. Gregory Anderson works with the National Geographic on a project called “Language Hotspots,” which aims to bring public attention to those “hotspots” around the world where linguistic diversity is highest and most delicate. Its inspiration, Anderson says, is the global movement for biodiversity. Biodiversity hotspots were successful in “making conservation of ecology something that every little child knows as a kind of cultural practice of being right,” Anderson told the HPR. Anderson hopes language hotspots will have a similar impact, and will help people see the conservation of language as a common-sense cause.

Anderson explained that two generations ago, conservation of ecology was not universally seen as valuable. Today, however, that perspective has radically changed thanks to organizations that focus on biodiversity like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. The “Language Hotspots” initiative, Anderson affirms, hopes to do the same with linguistic diversity.

One of the hotspots the project is working on is the Oklahoma-Southwest area, where Judge Bigler’s language, Euchee, is threatened. Through a confluence of public awareness efforts like the hotspots project, teaching efforts by determined individuals like Bigler, and documentation efforts by  Linn,  the language is being passed on from five elderly speakers to two dozen eager learners. For Euchee, and other endangered tongues, there seems to be hope.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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