A subject I have always been fascinated and passionate about is the plight of endangered languages. Not many people know or perhaps understand what that is, but I would love to share it with you, so I created a new weekly topic that explores it, focusing on one language a week. With the help and blessing of The Endangered Languages Project, we would like to bring some awareness to this serious tragedy to our readers, and literature being a language in written form– I thought went well with the theme of the blog.

We all hear of the plight of endangered animals and the fight to protect and save them, but what of the loss of culture and history when a language dies to the human story?

According to University of Houston,

“But some linguists warn that the loss of linguistic diversity is akin to the loss of biodiversity. Just as agricultural convergence around a small number of plant species can be bad for health and evolution, so too can linguistic “monocultures” impoverish our mental evolution. In fact, the linguistic diversity argument closely parallels biodiversity arguments, since many of the endangered languages are in third world countries also known for their vast biological treasures. So rich are Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in human micro-cultures that combined they speak a quarter of the world’s languages.

Linguists warn the death of a language means the loss of a dense cultural heritage, not to mention the passing away of a distinct human identity. Many of today’s endangered languages arose amid intense interaction with the natural environment, and house myriad details about animal behavior, plants and traditional medicine. The fear is the rate of language loss is currently so great we may undergo a mass cultural extinction without realizing it. If language is the greatest human invention, how much of it can we afford to lose?”

According to Linguistic Society.org:

“Fewer than there were last month…

Whatever the world’s linguistic diversity at the present, it is steadily declining, as local forms of speech increasingly become moribund before the advance of the major languages of world civilization. When a language ceases to be learned by young children, its days are clearly numbered, and we can predict with near certainty that it will not survive the death of the current native speakers.

The situation in North America is typical. Of about 165 indigenous languages, only eight are spoken by as many as 10,000 people. About 75 are spoken only by a handful of older people, and can be assumed to be on their way to extinction. While we might think this is an unusual fact about North America, due to the overwhelming pressure of European settlement over the past 500 years, it is actually close to the norm.

Around a quarter of the world’s languages have fewer than a thousand remaining speakers, and linguists generally agree in estimating that the extinction within the next century of at least 3,000 of the 6,909 languages listed by Ethnologue, or nearly half, is virtually guaranteed under present circumstances. The threat of extinction thus affects a vastly greater proportion of the world’s languages than its biological species.

What happens when a language “dies”?

Some would say that the death of a language is much less worrisome than that of a species. After all, are there not instances of languages that died and were reborn, like Hebrew? And in any case, when a group abandons its native language, it is generally for another that is more economically advantageous to them: why should we question the wisdom of that choice?

But the case of Hebrew is quite misleading, since the language was not in fact abandoned over the many years when it was no longer the principal language of the Jewish people. During this time, it remained an object of intense study and analysis by scholars. And there are few if any comparable cases to support the notion that language death is reversible.

The economic argument does not really supply a reason for speakers of a “small” and perhaps unwritten language to abandon that language simply because they also need to learn a widely used language such as English or Mandarin Chinese. Where there is no one dominant local language, and groups with diverse linguistic heritages come into regular contact with one another, multilingualism is a perfectly natural condition.

When a language dies, a world dies with it, in the sense that a community’s connection with its past, its traditions and its base of specific knowledge are all typically lost as the vehicle linking people to that knowledge is abandoned. This is not a necessary step, however, for them to become participants in a larger economic or political order.”

Citing an article in The Star:

“As many as half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to be extinct by the end of this century; it is estimated that one language dies out every 14 days.

Endangered languages, much like endangered species of plants or animals, are on the brink of extinction. According to UNESCO, a language is endangered when parents are no longer teaching it to their children and it is no longer being used in everyday life.

A language is considered nearly extinct when it is spoken by only a few elderly native speakers.

It is a huge loss every time a language dies, says Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins, a professor in linguistics at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

A language defines a people, a culture.”

A short video made by The Endangered Languages Project:

(Note: We get absolutely no compensation for sharing this info, organizations, etc… this information is shared due to our concern for this global problem.) All information shared is with the permission of The Endangered Languages Project. I urge you to check them out– the research and efforts to slow this problem, and preserve what is left, document and revitalize those dying languages is admirable.

The 3,000 endangered languages or organized by country or region on The Endangered Languages Project site, and we will start with where Daisy and I live, the USA and go from there. This week’s focus language is:

(Lower) Tanana

Language metadata

Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit, Dene (Athabaskan)

ISO 639-3

taa

As csv

OLAC search

Tanana is the language of the Lower Tanana river, extending from Salcha through Fairbanks and Nenana to the Minto Flats.