Racing Against Extinction:
Saving Native Languages

by America Meredith

Right 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 a).

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 (Anderton).

Surprisingly 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 nature.

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 417).

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" (Champagne 418).

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 13).

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 116)

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 television show.

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.


Works Cited

  • Amarillo Globe. "Keating Blasts 'English-Only' Proposed Law." U.S. & World News. (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.
  • Crawford, James. "Endangered Native American Languages: What Is to Be Done, and Why?" Endangered Native American Languages. 19.Nov.2000. <http://www.ncbe.gwu.edu/miscpubs/crawford/endangered.htm>
  • Crawford, James. "Languages Politics in the U.S.A.: The Paradox of Bilingual Education." Language Policy. 20.November.2000 <http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/JWCRAWFORD/paradox.htm>
  • Gray, Jim. "State Question on 'English Only' Turns Back the Clock on Race Relations." Oklahoma Indian Times. 19.Nov.2000 <http://www.okit.com/sos/2000/english.htm>
  • Hinton, Leanne. Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1994.
  • Hirshfelder, Arlene and Martha Kreipe de Montaño. The Native American Almanac: A Portrait of Native America Today. New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1993.
  • Holmes, Ruth Bradley and Betty Sharp Smith. Beginning Cherokee. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.
  • Meredith, Dr. Howard and Virginia Milam Sobral, eds. Atsalagi Nusdv Nugohv Elohi. Oklahoma City: Noksi Press, 1997.
  • Newkumet, Vynola Beaver and Howard L. Meredith. Hasinai: A Traditional History of the Caddo Confederacy. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1988.
  • Oocumma, John and Don Grooms. How to Talk Trash in Cherokee. Cherokee, NC: Downhome Publishing Co., 1989.
  • Reyhner, Jon. "Teaching Indigenous Languages." Northern Arizona University (1997). 18.November.2000 <http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~jar/TIL_Intro.html>
  • Shorris, Earl. "The Last Word." Harper's Magazine, August 2000: 62-69.
  • U.S. English Foundation. "Official English: Native American Languages." U.S. English Foundation. 19. Nov.2000 <http://www.us-english.org/inc/official/native.asp>
  • U.S. English Foundation. "Towards a United America." U.S. English Foundation. 19.Nov.2000 <http://www.us-english.org/foundation/>

 

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