Insights and Impact

Lost Words/Worlds

Language warriors are fighting to save the world's 7,000 small tongues—half of which are teetering on extinction


Photo­graphy by
Jeremy Fahringer

Abamu Degio watches a recording of herself singing a traditional Koro song.
Abamu Degio, left, Anthony Degio, center, and David Harrison

The soft voices of the two elderly sisters belie the difficulty of their task. They live, as have their ancestors, on the island of Chiloe, off the coast of Chile, an area with fragile ecosystems not found anywhere else in the world.

Sitting next to a large wood-burning stove on the cool, rainy island, Wilma and Teolinda Guenteo speak Spanish, Chile's dominant language, during the interview. But they also speak a centuries-old indigenous tongue called Huillichesungun. They are two of only a handful of people, mostly elderly, who are fluent in the language.

The sisters hope to preserve and revitalize their ancestral tongue before it fades completely, before they and other remaining speakers pass on.

Indigenous languages link the ancient past to the present, imparting a community's values to young members and safeguarding a way of life—traditions, livelihoods, and sacred rituals. Languages also preserve knowledge about the natural landscape, its ecosystems
and environmental conditions, knowledge that has enabled communities, such as the Huilliche, to survive harsh climates—in deserts, mountains, and rainforests—for millennia.

In the face of extreme weather and climate change, this knowledge could also play a vital role in helping the industrialized world find solutions to these challenges. As speech communities with oral traditions go extinct, however, their skills, expertise, and problem-solving strategies could be irretrievably lost.

Aside from the titans of global languages—English, Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin among them—some 7,000 smaller tongues are spoken throughout the world. About half of these languages face extinction in the coming decades. According to the United Nations, every two weeks a small endangered tongue disappears when its last speaker dies. Researchers gauge the vitality of languages on a scale ranging from the vigorous, such as ever expanding English, to the endangered, those on the verge of permanent loss.

Language loss occurs in nearly every country. Although dominant tongues have edged out smaller ones throughout history, the rate of extinction in recent years has dramatically increased, outpacing that of plants and animals. To pinpoint the threat of extinction and prioritize research, Swarthmore linguistics professor David Harrison, SIS/BA '88, coined the term language hotspots. Modeled after the concept of biodiversity hotspots, they include areas with jeopardized, undocumented languages within a region having a high diversity of language families (Indo-European would be the language family for English, for example).

Linguists at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages—the nonprofit Harrison cofounded that produces materials such as the videorecording of the two Huilliche speakers—have identified some 20 hotspots with an urgent need for research, including those in Asia, Australia, Siberia, West Africa, and North and South America.

Information Packaging

All languages, large and small, embed cultural knowledge. In English the various words for a horse's age and gender illustrate this: stallion and mare for male and female horses, colt and filly for young male and female horses, or foal for even younger horses. By a certain age, most English speakers can decode the meaning beneath those labels.
The language retains a residue of a previous age, not so long ago, when animal husbandry played an important role in American society.

Unlike global languages like English that spread geographically, indigenous tongues stay rooted for thousands of years in a particular area, preserving a wealth of concentrated ancestral knowledge. Tucked into them, sometimes only as single words, are deep layers of meaning or information packaging, says Harrison. This became clear to him while conducting dissertation research in southern Siberia, where he lived and worked with a family of nomadic Tuvan yak herders.

In addition to gaining empathy for their imperiled way of life, including the looming loss of their ancestral tongue, Harrison made a discovery that challenged a central tenet of linguistics: that all languages are essentially the same, with nearly identical rules for creating their grammar, vocabulary, and other facets of language.

Harrison recognized that the Tuvan language reflected the community's specific environment. For a Tuvan speaker, using the correct form of the seemingly straightforward verb to go, for example, requires knowing in which direction the current of the nearby river flows.

Harrison observed that the Tuvans, in a feat of lexical engineering, bundle complex concepts into single words, reflecting their unique and efficient way of speaking and categorizing their herds. One such useful word for yak herders is dönggür (doong-GUR), meaning male domesticated, uncastrated, rideable reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not ready for mating.

"You have to be out in the landscape interacting with the animals and the features of the landscape to even understand the grammar of a language," says Harrison, who first recognized his knack for language during a trip to Poland as an AU undergrad. "Language is so much more than something contained in the head. It spills out into the environment and the world around us. That was my big eureka moment: that the academic discipline of linguistics was too narrow to apprehend the language."

Language Shift

Linguists do not know exactly how or why languages die. They seem to diminish in strength and eventually disappear for many reasons—social, economic, and political—but almost always from outside pressure.

Children appear to hold the key to keeping a language alive, says AU linguist in residence Robin Barr, who teaches in AU's Department of World Languages and Culture. "The more people you can get in a speech community who are using the language and using it with their children . . . so they learn not only the grammar and the pronunciation but also all of the culturally important lexical items," the better the chance that the language will flourish the way healthy languages do.

The classroom, past and present, has played a role in language vitality. The elderly Guenteo sisters from Chiloe Island lament that their community schools teach classes mostly in Spanish. In the United States, past policies of cultural assimilation drove many Native American children to government-run boarding schools, which prohibited them from speaking their languages. In western Mongolia today, young nomadic herders face similar pressures in schools, where they must speak the dominant Mongolian language.

Indigenous languages fade for other reasons. Young speakers might come to view them as out of date, socially inferior, or an obstacle to employment. Or they might opt to learn to read and write in a dominant language and not keep up the oral tradition of their native tongue.

When children understand a small tongue spoken at home but refuse to speak it themselves, a shift to a dominant language occurs. Their children, the next generation, miss the chance to learn to speak it fluently, if at all.

Language shifts also happen in global languages—when, say, huge numbers of young Spanish speakers migrate to America with their parents and cast aside their native tongue for English in order to fit in or keep up with their English-speaking peers. Despite this shift, the Spanish language remains strong, because so many people, including children, still speak it around the world.

Harrison, who was born on a Cree Indian reservation to missionary parents, has become a fervent advocate of cultural autonomy for indigenous groups. Speakers of endangered languages, he says, are often given a false choice that has dire consequences: either learn a dominant language and leave behind their ancestral tongue or not learn it and risk social, political, or economic hardship.

Around the world, however, multilingual speakers prove that people can be afforded another choice: to become fluent in another language, or languages, while holding on to their heritage tongue.

Rising Voices

Once language shift occurs, does it spell the irreversible end of an endangered tongue? When the only speakers are a few elderly people, can a small tongue come back to meet the benchmark of use in everyday conversation, where it can grow and change and create new words?

Harrison says that the survival of threatened tongues ultimately depends on the attitudes of the indigenous communities themselves. Fortunately, language activism is on the rise in small-tongue communities: language warriors, as he calls them, are pushing back against adopting a dominant language to the detriment of their own, and they are taking an active role in revitalization.

Tech-savvy activists know that expanding their language involves harnessing technology and social media to draw in their young people. The Huilliche in Chile find hope in the interest shown by two teens, for example, who have incorporated words from their ancestral tongue into a hip-hop song sung primarily in Spanish.

Some groups gamely try to reach their young members through apps, social media, text messaging, and language-translation software. Encouraging young people to communicate through formats like Facebook is important, says Barr, who studies the role of the brain in learning language. She points out the difficulty in reviving small tongues through written documentation alone: "There's no way you can write down everything in a language. It's infinite, and speaking is a very different process. Really only one language has been revived—Hebrew, which people could speak to each other and use with their children so they could grow up speaking it."

Worldwide awareness of the problem of language loss is growing. "Ten years ago," says Harrison, "when I would use the phrase 'endangered languages,' people would do a double take. The phrase was simply not in circulation, not a term people acknowledged. I'm seeing that now people get it. They know that cultures are under threat, that languages are going extinct."

A number of organizations, including UNESCO with its interactive map of endangered languages, have joined in the effort to strengthen languages under threat. Harrison, a National Geographic fellow, and his team from the Living Tongues Institute, work with National Geographic's Enduring Voices project to document the languages and cultures within them. The group was the first to uncover the tiny language of Koro, which was hidden under Aka, a larger endangered tongue, in northeast India. Koro people speak both languages, as different from each other as Japanese and English.

The institute also produces print and electronic materials, which Harrison explains that he and his fellow linguists curate but do not own. The materials are the intellectual property of the speech communities themselves. They include books and online talking dictionaries, which serve as a virtual classroom for speakers and offer insight into the rich diversity of seldom heard languages.

To promote awareness of language loss, Harrison has also written two books; appeared in a documentary film, The Linguists, screened at the Sundance festival; and even appeared on The Colbert Report.

According to UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, 230 languages have become extinct since 1950. If small tongues disappear as their last speakers die, says the linguist, "the global community does not even know what it stands to lose."

Certainly indigenous communities could lose centuries of oral tradition and the cultural identity and wisdom that comes from living close to nature and surviving extreme climates.

The rest of us could lose opportunities to learn about ecosystems still unknown to Western science. We could miss the chance to study how, for millennia, people have passed down vast amounts of information—whether 10,000-line epic tales or techniques for celestial navigation or natural resource management—without written documentation, digital technology, or twenty-first century memory-enhancing aids.

Preserving and revitalizing other languages "allows us to step outside our own patterns of thinking to experience the world in a completely new way," says Harrison. "We will need the entire sum of human knowledge as it is encoded in all the world's languages to truly understand and care for the planet we live on."