by America Meredith
now, six thousand languages are spoken on the planet. Three thousand of
these-half of the world's known languages-are expected to die within the
next century. Of the estimated remaining languages, 40 percent of these
are threatened. Within only 100 years, 90 percent of the world's existing
languages might be extinct or seriously threatened. "That leaves
only about 600 languages, 10 percent of the world's total, that remain
relatively secure-for now," writes linguist James Crawford (Crawford
Of the hundreds of Native
American languages, only 175 are spoken today. Some of these languages
have only a single living speaker. Linguist Michael Krauss, director of
the Alaska Native Language Center, predicts that only twenty of these
languages will survive for much longer (Shorris). Krauss classifies 89
percent of the Native American languages today-155 languages-as being
moribund-spoken only by elders and not learned by children. Only twenty
Native American languages are expected to survive the next five decades.
Of the 23 Native languages still spoken by Oklahoma tribes, only two are
actively being passed on to the next generation. Of the 20 Alaskan languages,
only two dialects of Yup'ik are being passed on.
Before white contact, California
had more linguistic variety than all of Europe. Now every one of the 50
surviving languages in California is moribund. "California Indian
languages are indeed in the ultimate crisis in a life-and-death struggle,"
writes linguist Leanne Hinton. "We may see ninety percent of these
languages, or perhaps all of them, disappear in our lifetimes" (Hinton
14). "The threat to linguistic resources is now recognized as a worldwide
crisis," Crawford writes. "We appear to have entered a period
of mass extinctions-a threat to diversity in our natural ecology and also
in what might be called our cultural ecology" (Crawford a).
Why are these languages
dying? Some languages have died because every speaker was wiped off the
face of the Earth. Some have died because of cultural genocide, liked
that practiced by the American government and Roman Catholic Church in
the boarding school programs for Native children in the last century.
More often than not, these
languages die because of language shift-that is another language such
as Spanish or English eclipses the use of the native languages. Today
mass media reaches the furthest corners of the globe and brings with it
new languages via television, radio, the Internet. "Destruction of
lands and livelihoods; the spread of consumerism, individualism, and other
Western values; pressures for assimilation into dominant cultures; and
conscious policies of repression directed at indigenous groups-these are
among the factors threatening the world's biodiversity as well as its
cultural and linguistic diversity," writes Crawford (Crawford a).
This tragic loss of human
culture and learning is not inevitable. Despite all odds, indigenous peoples
and linguists are fighting to keep native languages alive. "Heroic
efforts are now being made on behalf of languages with only a few elderly
speakers, for example, by the Advocates for Indigenous California Language
Survival," writes Crawford. (Crawford a). One woman in California
is the last speaker of her language. Every time she talks, she speaks
first in English, then in her native language to stay in practice. Native
languages are worthy of survival and we, as Americans, should all assist
with this struggle.
The English Only movement
is a threat and annoyance that language preservationists face. This movement
gained widespread support in the 1980s, riding a wave of anti-immigrant
sentiment, directed primarily at Spanish-speaking Latin Americans. The
English Only Foundation is the largest group in this movement, and they
see establishing English as the official language of the United States
as a means of unifying the country. They seek legislation requiring federal
and state governments to only conduct business in English, not to translate
government documents into other languages, and for no government money
to be spent on other languages with the exceptions of short-term bilingual
education for immigrant children and the teaching of second languages
in public schools. Publicly the movement says they seek unity; privately
their motivation seems to be racist and assimilationist.
In the United States, the
economic impetus to learn English is overwhelming, without being legislated.
In the zeal to teach immigrants English, many English Only supporters
not only forgot about the existence of Native languages, they also forgot
about the needs of deaf people who communicate via American Sign Language
Oklahoma Government Frank Keating publicly denounced State Question 689,
a proposed English Only law, locally championed by State Senator Carol
Martin. He then continues to say that a plan to "not print anything
to help the lawful, tax-paying, permanent residents is mean-spirited and
would shortchange Oklahoma. ... Why stiff any of these people and say
they are not fully part of our society?" (Amarillo Globe).
Contrary to the English
Only position, studies "confirm that developing fluent bilingualism
and cultivating academic excellence are complementary, rather than contradictory,
goals," writes Crawford. He notes that Canada has a bi-lingual education
system that guarantees minorities' minority's "right not to assimilate,
the right to maintain a certain difference" (Crawford b).
People might oppose expending
resources or energy to save languages because they don't believe it is
possible. Some see language death as part of an inevitable. Yet, one outstanding
example of what is possible with language resuscitation is that of Hebrew.
Hebrew was a "dead" language for almost two millennia, but was
brought back to use by the modern state of Israel and is now spoken by
millions. While Native Americans do not have the resources Israel has,
they do have awe-inspiring tenacity and faith. The Deg Hit'an (Ingalik
Athabaskan) have less than twenty elders, who live too far away from the
young adults trying to learn Deg Xinag-their language-for face-to-face
contact. So the tribe created a distance delivery class to teach their
language via telephone. The Coquille Tribe in Oregon is working to revive
their Miluk language, which has no living speakers. Their only tools are
tape recordings of the last living speakers from the 1930s. "To save
the sound of the Nawal," writes educator and author Earl Shorris,
"the K'iche' are willing to die, and many have been shot, dismembered,
burned, buried, or thrown into volcanoes in Guatemala" (Shorris).
The loss of linguistic
diversity represents a loss of intellectual diversity-most immediately
a loss to the discipline of linguistics. The study of linguistics helps
scholars understand origins, migrations and cultural contacts of tribes
long before written historical records were made. Each language is a unique
tool for understanding the world-incorporating the knowledge and values
of a speech community, which can show us the depth and diversity of human
Native languages have some
extraordinary differences than European languages, for instance, some
have different dialects spoken by men and women, a well-known example
being Yana from California. A Yana man would say "pana" for
"deer," while a woman would say "pah" (Champagne 418).
Some languages, such a Bella Coola, a Salish language from British Columbia,
has words without any vowels, such as "sk'lxlxc," which means,
"I'm getting cold" (Champagne 416). Musical pitch can play a
role in the meaning of a word. As Duane Champagne writes, "in Navajo,
high pitch can be written with an acute accent [...] there are contrasting
words like bíní' 'his nostril,' bìnì 'his face,' and bìní,' 'his waist' (Champagne
Very much unlike English,
many Native American languages are polysynthetic, which means a word is
a combination of many element with many specific meanings. For instance,
the single Wichita word "kiyaakiriwaac'arasarikita'ahiiriks"
means "He carried the big pile of meat up into the top of the tree"
While today in English
we try to avoid being sexist and stumble over awkward phrases such as
"he or she should look out himself or herself," Cherokee pronouns
are not gender specific at all. Therefore "Ost(i) digon'ti ageya"
could mean: "There's a good-looking woman" or "There's
a good-looking guy," according to the authors of How to Talk Trash
in Cherokee (Oocumma 60).
"There is so much
to learn from all these different languages, about the amazing choices
humans have in organizing and talking about the world around them,"
write Hinton. "There are so many ways to construct language itself,
many ways to play with it or to use it to powerful effect" (Hinton
Language gives many clues
to the culture. For instance, in Hasinai there is a completely separate
common speech and a ceremonial speech. Both Cherokee and Hasinai have
modifiers to distinguish between what is directly observed and what is
gossip. Most native languages have extensive lists of high specific kinship
terms, which show a greater emphasis on family than what is found in Anglo
cultures. Again, using Hasinai as a typical example, "E'but"
means "Grandfather on the male side of the family" and "Enahe'"
may means "older aunt on the maternal side of the family" (Newkumet
Action is paramount in
Native languages. Nouns are expressed not so much as what something is as by what it does. The Cherokee word for "lawyer" is
"ditiyohihi," which literately translates "s/he argues
repeatedly and on purpose with a purpose," and "California"
is "adel'tsuhdlv" or "where they find money" (Holmes,
vi). Finally each language has its own unique sense of humor. Many west
coast languages have silly nonsense speech for animals. For instance,
in Yahi, when Coyote is imitated, l's or r's are turned into n's, so "yap'lasa:sithi"
("it is well done") turns into "yap'nasha"shithi"
(Hinton 45). Other twists of humor include strange puns like the Cherokee
"Ani?sasa," which can mean "Osage people" or "they
are geese" (Holmes 280), or "uyv:dla," which means "Republican"
or "cold" (Holmes 279).
These diverse languages
should be preserved in the interest of correcting past injustices. Native
languages are not dying by chance. Linguistic genocide was United States'
policy for decades. A federal commission in 1868 wrote, "Schools
should be established, which children should be required to attend; their
barbarous dialects should be blotted out and the English language substituted"
(Atkins quoted in Crawford a). From that point onward well into the middle
20th twentieth, native children were quite literally kidnapped from their
homes and sent to government or church boarding schools. "Under strict
English Only rules, students were punished and humiliated for speaking
their native language as part of a general campaign to erase every vestige
of their Indian-ness," writes Crawford (Crawford a). On 14.December.1886
the federal government announced its policy outlawing any use of native
languages. This policy continued until the 1950s and can be credited destroying
over 150 languages (Hirshfelder 84).
Language is the key to
identity. Navajo educator Parsons Yazzie says, "The use of the native
tongue is like therapy, specific native words express love and caring.
Knowing the language presents one with a strong self-identity, a culture
with which to identify, and a sense of wellness" (quoted in Reyhner).
A Northern Cheyenne elder was quoted by Dr. Richard Littlebear, in saying,
"It's scary the way we're losing our Cheyenne language. Cheyenne
language is us; it is who we are; we talk it, we live it. We are it and
it is us" (quoted in Reyhner). A Ponca elder asked some children
what tribe they were. They responded, "Ponca." He asked them
if they spoke the Ponca language; they said, "No." He told them
they were not Ponca, and without knowing their language, they may as well
be brown-skinned white people (Anderton).
Having a clear sense of
identity is important for self-esteem and stability. Dawn Stiles, a Cocopah
language instruction, says that successful language programs can help
reduce drug and alcohol abuse, gang activity, and high dropouts rates
in native communities (Reyhner). "Along with the accompanying loss
of culture, language loss can destroy a sense of self-worth, limiting
human potential and complicating efforts to solve other problems, such
as poverty, family breakdown, school failure, and substance abuse,"
writes Crawford. "After all, language death does not happen in privileged
communities. It happens to the dispossessed and the disempowered, peoples
who most need their cultural resources to survive" (Crawford a).
The act of creating a language
program itself can be healing to a tribe. "The stabilization of indigenous
languages forms part of a broader movement to reestablish societies on
a human scale that are in balance with nature," writes Jon Reyhner
(Reyhner). Languages are learned better in tandem with cultural knowledge.
Dance, folk stories, and singing are employed in language classes. Some
tribes, such as the Yup'ik and the Wind River Arapaho have immersion programs.
Tribes such as the Lakota, Navajo, and Zuni have radio stations that broadcast
their own languages. The Yamada Language Institute on the web has, available
free to the public, computer fonts for the Cherokee syllabary, Inuit,
and Cree. Native Hawai'ian, Diné, and Muskogee Creek speakers are
actively modernizing their languages to include technological terms. The
Navajo Nation and the Oglala Lakota tribe have both issued mandates that
tribal business will take in the native language.
Locally in Norman, linguist
Dr. Alice Anderton, created the Intertribal Wordpath Society "to
promote the teaching, status, awareness, and use of Oklahoma Indian languages"
(Reyhner). Wordpath hosts an annual native language fair and a weekly
Anderton says that in the
past children learned from their mothers. Now she says language programs
have to skip a generation and successful program pair infants with fluent
elders. Language classes must meet more than once a week. Singing is good,
when speaking won't work. Above all, she stressed, "It should be fun" (Anderton).
Tribes are videotaping
and recording their elders. They are creating orthographies, grammar books,
dictionaries, novels, immersion camps, artwork, CD-ROMs, comics, newspapers,
e-mail list serves, and websites to proliferate instructional and material
in their languages. Tribes are working with public school systems to teach
native languages in the classrooms.
Earl Shorris, creator of
the Clemente Humanities Course, has seen the course take off like prairie
fire among native peoples, who incorporate their own native literature
into the curriculum. He writes that after two years past the first Mayan
Clemente Course: "In the village, where only 120 people have work
and those who work earn no more than eighty-five cents a day, the students
speak of the literature of their ancestors. They know the poetry and stories
and poetry and stories and those works the ancient Maya called histories
of the future. May May taught them the difficult and subtle sounds of
their language again, using the ring of coins on stone and the clack of
bricks and the conk of wood" (Shorris). The students translated the
Popol Vuh into their own dialect, K'iche' Mayan.
These heroic efforts by
tribes should be fully supported by the American public, as they benefit
the entire nation. Saving native languages is so crucial to native peoples.
Linguist D. Tunbridge understands the important of one's native language.
Writing about project to revive Adnyamathanha, an Australian Aboriginal
language, Tunbridge wrote: "It was not the success in reviving the
language although in some small ways [the program] did that. It
was success in reviving something far deeper than the language itself
that sense of worth in being Adnyamathanha, and in having something
unique and infinitely worth hanging onto" (quoted in Crawford a).
Don Grooms and John Oocumma
seem to be the most ambitious among native language instructors. They write,
"...if just half the people who claim to be one-eighth Cherokee learn
to speak their native language... GLORY HALLELUYAH! CHEROKEE WILL BE THE
NATIVE LANGUAGE OF THE UNITED STATES" (Oocumma, 3). Carol Martin, watch
out. Hadvta sgesdi-eligwus.
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(12.August.2000). 20.November.2000 <http://www.amarillonet.com/stories/081200/usn_keating.shtml>
- Anderton, Dr. Alice.
Personal interview. 30 Nov. 2000.
- Champagne, Duane. Native
America: Portrait of the Peoples. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1994.
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and Martha Kreipe de Montaño. The Native American Almanac:
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and Howard L. Meredith. Hasinai: A Traditional History of the Caddo
Confederacy. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press,
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Grooms. How to Talk Trash in Cherokee. Cherokee, NC: Downhome
Publishing Co., 1989.
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