June 25, 2012

Half of today’s languages set to disappear


A Seri woman

Roughly 7,000 languages are spoken across the globe today, but nearly half of them stand to disappear within the next century, according to linguists. Russ Rymer has an excellent article in the latest edition of National Geographic Magazine, about some of those minority and endangered languages, and what their loss might mean.

He starts off with Tuvan, spoken in the Republic of Tuva in the Russian Federation, which has a relatively healthy 264,000 speakers across Russia, Mongolia, and China. It also has a newspaper and, being an official language of the Tuva Republic, an army — which sociolinguist Max Weinreich quipped is what makes a dialect into a language. Meanwhile, says Rymer:

Languages like Wintu, a native tongue in California, or Siletz Dee-ni, in Oregon, or Amurdak, an Aboriginal tongue in Australia’s Northern Territory, retain only one or two fluent or semifluent speakers.

As Rymer says, ‘A last speaker with no one to talk to exists in unspeakable solitude.’ It’s impossible to conceive of the loneliness. Where reports on endangered languages often focus on these personal and cultural costs, which are enormous, Rymer also underlines the cost to science when a language dies:

Small languages, more than large ones, provide keys to unlock the secrets of nature, because their speakers tend to live in proximity to the animals and plants around them, and their talk reflects the distinctions they observe. When small communities abandon their languages and switch to English or Spanish, there is a massive disruption in the transfer of traditional knowledge across generations—about medicinal plants, food cultivation, irrigation techniques, navigation systems, seasonal calendars…

Cmiique Iitom [spoken by less than a thousand Seri people in Mexico] has terms for more than 300 desert plants, and its names for animals reveal behaviors that scientists once considered farfetched. The Seri word for harvesting eelgrass clued scientists in to the sea grass’s nutritional merits. (Its protein content is about the same as wheat’s.) The Seris call one sea turtle moosni hant cooit, or green turtle that descends, for its habit of hibernating on the floor of the sea, where the traditional fishermen used to harpoon it. “We were skeptical when we first learned from the Seri Indians of Sonora, Mexico, that some Chelonia are partially buried on the sea floor during the colder months,” stated a 1976 paper in Science documenting the behavior. “However, the Seri have proved to be highly reliable informants.” The Seris enjoyed eating sea turtles but not leatherbacks, for a simple reason. Leatherbacks, they say, understand their language and are Seri themselves. In 2005 the Seri name for shark, hacat, became the official name for a newly discovered species of smooth-hound shark, Mustelus hacat. Newly discovered by modern scientists, that is—the Seris had been aware of them for years.

Encouragingly, Cmiique Iitom has shown signs of vigour, despite the small number of speakers, through the invention of new words to describe the few modern luxuries that Seris have adopted. Among them is this heartstopping name for a car muffler:

ihíisaxim an hant yaait — into which the breathing descends

Work is underway to record some of these endangered and minority languages, as is demonstrated by the studies Rymer quotes, but there’s also this: 85% of the world’s languages remain undocumented. We won’t even know what we’ve lost when they’re gone.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.