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Languages on Endangered Watch List

GraveyardLinguists often identify Latin as a poster child language, unfortunately, it’s a poster child for dying languages.  Many other languages face a similar fate.  Pacific rim linguist Michael E. Krauss estimates that nearly 30% of languages have gone from the endangered stage to the moribund stage – a stage whereby children are no longer learning the respective language.  Here are four languages to know before they disappear forever:

Four Endangered Languages

Provencal

Outside of a distinct grammar set, Provencal is very similar to French and is largely spoken in the southern area of France called Provence.  The late nineteenth century poet Frederic Mistral popularized the language and region, portraying Provence as the true hero in all of his works.

Provencal has suffered from the French government’s protectionist actions over the French language. This attitude is manifested in the French government’s use of an academy of linguists to decide which words to allow in the French language and which to label “foreign.” According to linguist Mark Abley, this attitude of French language supremacy threatens Provencal’s survival. People who speak the language feel embarrassed to admit it, as only small-time villagers put the archaic language to tongue, and the major cultural forces of French civilization favor French.

Manx

Similar to Provencal, this sister language of Gaelic faces opposition from the speakers of the “big language” on its block. Manx’s home, the Isle of Man, is a nominal part of the United Kingdom, which viewed speaking Manx as a political statement against British control. The English also viewed Manx as a language of the inferior Scots. The last native speaker of Manx, a fisherman named Ned Maddress, died in 1974.

Despite Ned’s death, Manx is not technically extinct.  Linguists define a “native” speaker as someone who grows up speaking a language.  There are still 150 people today who did not grow up speaking Manx who can use it fluently. There’s even a small but reasonable movement to revitalize it, and some schools teach it.

Piraha

This next language takes us across the Atlantic to South America. Its speakers are from a region near the Amazon in Brazil.  Some unique attributes of Piraha include:

  • No color words except for light and dark
  • No past tense
  • Much of Piraha’s communication depends on musical tone – mothers teach their children to talk by singing, according to linguist Keren Everett.
  • Numbers are restricted to words similar to “many” and “few”

Piraha’s speakers number between 250 and 380. Even with such few speakers, Piraha’s future looks stable as the Piraha only speak Piraha.

Ainu

Predating the ancestors of the today’s Japanese were the Ainu. The ‘Japanese’ arrivals considered the Ainu hairy, repugnant, and primitive, and drove them to the very northernmost point of the islands. The main northern island, Hokkaido, harbors the last 100 living native speakers of Ainu, including the 15 that speak it every day.

Ainu has similar word order to Japanese but unlike Japanese, the Ainu use different pitches to accent their words. No one knows what language family Ainu belongs to.

Given the small ranks of the Ainu people, the majority speak Japanese. However, Ainu speakers have begun to band together on Hokkaido to teach their children Ainu, and a number of people speak it as a second language. The preservers of Ainu have their own newspaper in Ainu, which uses both Latin/Roman and Japanese katakana writing.

In the end, that’s what language survival is about: an interest in older culture. Our world tends to focus on the new, the hip, and the young, and when a language becomes perceived as the language of an older culture, evolution leaves it behind. Until young people take an interest in the experiences of their grandparents and ancestors, they will continue to allow language death, and with the loss of different languages, we lose different ways of thinking altogether.

Here’s to language preservation.