ELL: Language Loss

Matthew McDaniel akha at LOXINFO.CO.TH
Wed Jun 20 01:42:04 UTC 2001

Half of world's 6,800 languages could die by 2100

Navajo, Maori and Cornish, to name just a few, may be lost forever

WASHINGTON (AP) -- One reason is that half of all languages are spoken
by fewer than 2,500 people each, according to the Worldwatch Institute,
a private organization that monitors global trends.

Languages need at least 100,000 speakers to pass from generation to
generation, says UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization.

War and genocide, fatal natural disasters, the adoption of more dominant
languages such as Chinese and Russian, and government bans on language
also contribute to their demise.

"In some ways it's similar to what threatens species," said Payal
Sampat, a Worldwatch researcher who wrote about the topic for the
institute's May-June magazine.

The outlook for Udihe, Eyak and Arikapu -- spoken in Siberia, Alaska and
the Amazon jungle, respectively -- is particularly bleak.

About 100 people speak Udihe, six speak Arikapu, and Eyak is down to
one, Worldwatch says. Marie Smith, from Prince William Sound in Alaska,
is thought to be the last speaker of Eyak, in which 'awa'ahdah means
"thank you."

It's becoming a struggle, too, to find many who can say "thank you" in
the Navajo language of the American Indian tribe (ahehee), "hello" in
the Maori language of New Zealand (kia ora), or rattle off the proud
Cornish saying: "Me na vyn cows Sawsnak!" (I will not speak English!).

The losses ripple far beyond the affected communities. When a language
dies, linguists, anthropologists and others lose rich sources of
material for their work documenting a people's history, finding out what
they knew and tracking their movements from region to region.

And the world, linguistically speaking, becomes less diverse.

In January, a catastrophic earthquake in western India killed an
estimated 30,000 speakers of Kutchi, leaving about 770,000.

Manx, from the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, disappeared in 1974 with
the death of its last speaker. In 1992, a Turkish farmer's passing
marked the end of Ubykh, a language from the Caucasus region with the
most consonants on record, 81.

Eight countries account for more than half of all languages. They are,
in order, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, Mexico, Cameroon,
Australia and Brazil.

That languages die isn't new; thousands are believed to have disappeared

"The distinguishing thing is it's happening at such an alarming rate
right now," said Megan Crowhurst, chairwoman of the Linguistic Society
of America's endangered languages committee.

Linguists believe 3,400 to 6,120 languages could become extinct by 2100,
a statistic grimmer than the widely used estimate of about one language
death every two weeks.

While a few languages, including Chinese, Greek and Hebrew, are more
than 2,000 years old, others are coming back from the dead, so to speak.

In 1983, Hawaiians created the 'Aha Punana Leo organization to
reintroduce their native language throughout the state, including its
public schools. The language nearly became extinct when the United
States banned schools from teaching students in Hawaiian after annexing
the then-independent country in 1898.

'Aha Punana Leo, which means "language nest," opened Hawaiian-language
immersion preschools in 1984, followed by secondary schools that
produced their first graduates, taught entirely in Hawaiian, in 1999.

Some 7,000 to 10,000 Hawaiians currently speak their native tongue, up
from fewer than 1,000 in 1983, said Luahiwa Namahoe, the organization's

"We just want Hawaiian back where she belongs," Namahoe explained. "If
you can't speak it here, where will you speak it?"

Elsewhere, efforts are under way to revive Cornish, the language of
Cornwall, England, that is believed to have died around 1777, as well as
ancient Mayan languages in Mexico.

Hebrew evolved in the last century from a written language into Israel's
national tongue, spoken by 5 million people. Other initiatives aim to
revive Welsh, Navajo, New Zealand's Maori and several languages native
to Botswana.

Governments can help by removing bans on languages, and children should
be encouraged to speak other languages in addition to their native
tongues, said Worldwatch's Sampat, who is fluent in French and Spanish
and grew up speaking the Indian languages of Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati
and Kutchi.



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