- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

Ever hear someone speak Udihe, Eyak or Arikapu?

Odds are you never will. Among the world's 6,800 languages, half to 90 percent could be extinct by the end of the century.

Half of all languages are spoken by fewer than 2,500 people each, according to the Worldwatch Institute, a private organization that monitors global trends.

Languages need at least 100,000 speakers to pass from generation to generation, says UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. War, genocide, natural disasters, government bans and the adoption of more dominant languages, such as Chinese and Russian, also contribute to their demise.

"In some ways, it's similar to what threatens species," said Payal Sampat, a Worldwatch researcher who wrote about the topic for the institute's May-June magazine.

The outlook for Udihe, Eyak and Arikapu spoken in Siberia, Alaska and the Amazon jungle, respectively is particularly bleak.

About 100 people speak Udihe, six speak Arikapu, and Eyak is down to one, Worldwatch said. Marie Smith, 83, of Anchorage, Alaska, says she is the last speaker of Eyak, a claim verified by linguists.

She doesn't like the distinction.

"It's horrible to be alone," Mrs. Smith, who grew up in nearby Prince William Sound speaking Eyak, said in an interview. "I am the last person that talks in our language."

It's becoming a struggle, too, to find many who can say "thank you" in the Navajo language of the American Indian tribe (ahehee), say "hello" in the Maori language of New Zealand (kia ora) or rattle off the proud Cornish saying: "Me na vyn cows Sawsnak." ("I will not speak English.")

The losses ripple far beyond the affected communities. When a language dies, linguists, anthropologists and others lose rich sources of material for their work documenting a people's history, finding out what they knew and tracking their movements from region to region.

And the world, linguistically speaking, becomes less diverse.

In January, a catastrophic earthquake in western India killed an estimated 30,000 speakers of Kutchi, leaving about 770,000.

Manx, from the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, disappeared in 1974 with the death of its last speaker. In 1992, a Turkish farmer's passing marked the end of Ubykh, a language from the Caucasus region with the most consonants on record, 81.

Eight countries account for more than half of all languages. They are, in order, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, Mexico, Cameroon, Australia and Brazil.

That languages die isn't new; thousands are believed to have disappeared already.

"The distinguishing thing is it's happening at such an alarming rate right now," said Megan Crowhurst, chairman of the Linguistic Society of America's endangered languages committee.

Linguists believe 3,400 to 6,120 languages could become extinct by 2100, a statistic grimmer than the widely used estimate of about one language death every two weeks.

While a few languages, including Chinese, Greek and Hebrew, are more than 2,000 years old, others are coming back from the dead, so to speak.

In 1983, Hawaiians created the 'Aha Punana Leo organization to reintroduce their native language throughout the state, including its public schools. The language nearly became extinct when the United States banned schools from teaching students in Hawaiian after annexing the independent country in 1898.

'Aha Punana Leo, which means "language nest," opened Hawaiian-language immersion preschools in 1984, followed by secondary schools that produced their first graduates, taught entirely in Hawaiian, in 1999.

Some 7,000 to 10,000 Hawaiians currently speak their native tongue, up from fewer than 1,000 in 1983, said Luahiwa Namahoe, the organization's spokeswoman.

"We just want Hawaiian back where she belongs," Mrs. Namahoe said. "If you can't speak it here, where will you speak it?"

Elsewhere, efforts are under way to revive Cornish, the language of Cornwall, England, which is believed to have died around 1777, as well as ancient Mayan languages in Mexico.

Hebrew evolved in the past century from a written and a liturgical language into Israel's national tongue, spoken by 5 million people. Other initiatives aim to revive Welsh, Navajo, Maori and several languages native to Botswana.

Governments can help by removing bans on languages, and children should be encouraged to speak other languages in addition to their native tongues, said Mr. Sampat of Worldwatch, who is fluent in French and Spanish and grew up speaking the Indian languages of Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Kutchi.

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