When a language dies, a specific understanding of the world and a culture formed over centuries dies with it.
Every second week a language dies. It does so after a period of decline, as one speaker after another passes away until, eventually, only a sole keeper of thousands of years of knowledge and culture remains. When that person dies, a civilisation dies with them.
The earth is covered by the territories of some 200 independent states, but the number of nations and languages is far greater: over 6,000. However, only one third of these languages are in constant use and most linguistics scholars agree that by the end of the 21st century around half of today’s languages will be gone – for even if books and writings are preserved, without somebody who knows how to pronounce the words within them they will soon fall out of use.
“It worries me that words are getting lost. Even to me it’s pretty hard since I have nobody to speak fluently with,” says Elizabeth Gravelle, an elder of the Ktunaxa tribe residing in south-western Canada. She is one of only a handful of fluent speakers of the Ktunaxa language, a language related to no other on earth.
Gravelle has compiled a dictionary of the unique language, but even with comprehensive pronunciation guides the peculiar guttural and hissing sounds the language is full of pose a challenge.
Beside Gravelle on the front line of the battle to defend their common language is Marisa Philips. A young mother-to-be, Philips is not a fluent speaker of Ktunaxa, but she is recording the voices of Ktunaxa elders, like Gravelle, for preservation in an online archive.
“A lot of people think that language is just strictly for communication. But I find that language is connected to just about anything that you do. It’s a feeling of community, it’s a feeling of self,” says Philips. “It should definitely be one of the top priorities of a community or of a nation, because once we lose that bit of language, we lose that history of who we are.”
Despite the efforts of committed community members and the utilisation of modern technology, Ktunaxa remains on the list of highly endangered languages compiled by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
“The bottom line is whether a language is being transmitted to the younger generation,” says Christopher Moseley, a linguistics scholar and the editor-in-chief of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger published by UNESCO. “Everything depends on that. It’s really the basic part of the equation.”
While Philips is committed to teaching the native language to her child, this may prove insufficient. In addition to this type of grassroots activism, preserving a language is dependent upon a number of factors – many of which revolve around access to funding and the opportunity to generate publicity.
A colonial legacy
The area where the Ktunaxa reside is one of the main hot spots where the rate of language extinction is particularly alarming. Aside from North America, there are also concerns about dying languages in South America and – most of all – Australia.
In Australia, many would argue that the lingual decline is already a done deal. Prior to colonisation by the British, the continent was home to around 250 indigenous languages. Today, there are only 20 in constant use.
And the legacy of colonialism is a thread that runs through all of the especially endangered languages – for each belongs to a nation subjected to the influence of European colonial powers during recent centuries.
Colonial administrations seeking to unify the territory under their control needed a common administrative language. That, according to Moseley, usually included a common education system and featured the exclusion of anything indigenous.
But language extinction is in no way an entirely modern or post-colonial phenomenon. Languages have always come and gone – just as nations and civilisations have come to power, been assimilated or faced defeat over the centuries.
What is new, however, is the massive rate at which languages around the world are losing their speakers.
But it is possible to resuscitate a language. The most prominent example of this is Hebrew. The Jewish tongue went from being a dead liturgical language, comparable to Latin, to the native language of millions of people.
This process did not happen overnight. With a great amount of effort and funds invested in education and awareness-raising, the language was revived over the course of a century.
But there are also examples of languages proving much harder to elevate, even when the full weight of a European government is thrown behind it.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish language is the country’s first official language and a mandatory subject in the education system. Despite this, according to official census statistics, the majority of the country’s citizens never speak it outside of school.
Only some 50,000 people out of a total population of 4.6 million speak Irish on a daily basis. The reasons for this are hard to pin down, but Moseley believes it has something to do with the way the language is taught in schools.
“It was taught in the same way as Latin – a dead language,” Moseley explains. “If one language is considered dead, then in your subconscious, even though it’s the language of your island, it becomes a dead, remote language from a distant time as well.”
Today, thousands of nations and communities around the world struggle to keep their languages alive. Most of them are unlikely to succeed. Apart from a few exceptions, national and provincial governments do not place the preservation of indigenous languages high on their agendas.
When a language dies, a specific understanding of the world and in many cases a culture formed throughout centuries and even millennia dies with it.
But the individuals and communities featured in the Living the Language series serve as proof that much can be done to preserve dying languages by the people on the ground.
“You don’t lose your language because somebody has taken it away,” says Sophie Pierre, a former chief of the Ktunaxa nation. “You lose it when you refuse to pick it up yourself.”