Smith knows that her language - the Alaskan tongue of Eyak - will
die with her. And she mourns its passing.
you were expecting a little baby, and it went back to its home so
that it wasn't born alive, how would you feel?" says Smith,
85, who moved to Anchorage from her tribal home on Prince William
Sound in 1973.
fisherman's daughter, Smith grew up with Eyak, a branch of the Athabaskan-Tlingit
family of languages spoken for 3,000 years in Cordova, along the
Copper River. But she stopped speaking Eyak when she attended government
schools. Neither her children nor grandchildren know the language.
should have made them learn it, but they just weren't interested,"
is among thousands of languages expected to disappear in the next
100 years, a mortality rate that has linguists rushing to document
and save the world's endangered tongues. "We're losing a part
of our cultural history," said Michael Krauss, a University
of Alaska linguistics professor and founder of the Alaska Native
Language Center, established in the 1970s to save the state's 20
and other linguists blame the losses on economic and social trends,
politics, improved transportation and the global reach of telecommunications.
Whatever the reason, they predict that up to half of the world's
6,800 tongues could die over the next century - and hundreds more
will disappear in the century after that.
be the happiest guy in the world if I were wrong," Krauss said.
But he noted that only 500 to 600 languages are spoken by at least
two generations, making them relatively safe from extinction.
to experts, half the people on the planet use just 15 languages
to communicate, while 10 percent of the population speak in one
of about 6,800 distinct tongues. Half the world's languages are
spoken by fewer than 2,500 people, mostly in remote areas that are
becoming less remote every day.
economics are prompting the young to leave isolated villages in
India, Mexico and South America. They're headed for cities in search
of better lives, leaving native tongues behind. Meanwhile, satellite
TV and the Internet are reaching into isolated areas of Papua New
Guinea, a South Pacific island nation with 832 languages, more than
any other country.
you go to Papua New Guinea and go out in the most remote areas you
can find and you'll see grass huts, and alongside one of them you'll
see a satellite dish, and of course the TV that's coming in is coming
in English," said Anthony Aristar, a linguistics professor
at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies dying languages.
He is creating a $2 million database listing the world's tongues.
come, languages go
death of a language is nothing new. The spoken word, developed tens
of thousands of years ago, is in constant motion. Inventions inspire
word creation, wars transform nations, poverty prompts waves of
immigration, and other historic events - such as the opening of
the American West to European settlers - create conditions where
one tongue comes to dominate others.
example, linguists note that the Norman Conquest transformed early
English, which has its roots in German. Latin, the language of the
Roman Empire, replaced Etruscan and Punic before it diversified
and influenced 30 other languages, including English.
government policies kill a language. Many Native American languages
are near extinction - the Lipon Apache have two or three speakers
left - in part because government-run boarding schools punished
students for speaking native languages until the 1960s.
says that about half of the 200 languages native to North America
will probably die out over the next century because so few children
are picking up them up.
Caldwell, director of the Culture Center at the College of the Menominee
Nation in Wisconsin, remembers his father telling of having his
hand slapped with a ruler and his mouth washed out with soap for
speaking Menominee at the reservation school, which has closed.
The experience left the elder Caldwell, who died in 1972, reluctant
to speak the native tongue, or pass it on.
be at the dinner table and we would ask him, 'How do you count to
10? How do you say salt and pepper?' And depending on his mood,
most often his response was, 'You don't have a need to know that,
it won't do you any good,'" Caldwell said.
a result, only 40 of the tribe's 8,800 members speak the original
language. That's one reason why Monica McCauley, a University of
Wisconsin researcher, drives three hours to the reservation each
recently won a National Science Foundation grant to compile the
first complete Menominee dictionary. The project includes taping
the tribe's elders and transcribing conversations to capture the
nuances of the language.
elders agree that without such help, the language may disappear.
And Caldwell, 55, is in a "beginners" class taught by
Guatemala, parents encourage their children to forsake native Mayan
dialects and learn Spanish to get ahead in life. "They go to
school and they see that success depends on learning Spanish,"
said Nora England, a linguistics professor at the University of
to save languages are as varied as the languages. Nora England spends
her summers in Guatemala training local linguists to preserve four
endangered Mayan languages. Guatemala's villages have been hotbeds
of language diversity for centuries because of poor roads and mountainous
terrain. The result is 21 distinct Mayan tongues in Guatemala alone
and nine in Mexico.
of them are as different from each other as English is from Russian,"
stories exist. Hebrew, once nearly dead as an everyday spoken language,
was redeemed from ancient texts after 2,000 years and is spoken
by about 5 million people, mostly in Israel. Hebrew's resurgence
was aided by its role in the effort to establish a national identity
for Israel after World War I.
fight to save other dying languages is more of an uphill battle.
Critics argue that it's a waste of time and money if cultural trends
dictate their eventual demise.
Seeman, an associate editor at the National Review who operates
a Canadian think tank, said that while dying languages should be
recorded for historical study, governments are responding to political
pressure with a kind of "cultural protectionism" by forcing
languages on people who no longer have use for them. "I have
nostalgia for the electronic typewriter, but I don't see a need
for subsidies to protect it, or continue its use," Seeman said.
linguists say that a society's culture and history die out when
its language expires. "Part of the world is lost when you can't
name it," said Stephen Batalden, a linguist at Arizona State
Alaska, Smith says she hopes for a resurgence in Eyak, now that
Krauss has recorded her language on tapes and in writing. "I
have this feeling in my heart that the Eyak language is going to
come back, and usually I'm not wrong about these feelings,"
she said. And if it happens she will respond with a one-word prayer:
Eyak for "thank you."