I’m still reeling from the information in ‘Extinction: The Facts’ (BBC1): one million plant and animal species are facing extinction in the near future. And it set me thinking again about language extinctions.
The UNESCO ‘Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger’ (2010; available to consult online) lists 228 languages which have gone extinct over the last 50 years. And the process of language extinction is speeding up; another 557 languages are listed as critically endangered.
In her book, ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’, Robin Wall Kimmeridge gives an interesting insight into the difficulties of trying to learn the critically endangered language, Potawatomi, of a culture radically different from the English-speaking culture in which she was raised. And when describing a language class, she explains why learning the language matters:
'There was a great deal of excitement about the class because, for the first time, every single fluent speaker in our tribe would be there as a teacher. When the speakers were called forward to the circle of folding chairs, they moved slowly - with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, only a few entirely under their own power. I counted them as they filled the chairs. Nine. Nine fluent speakers. In the whole world. Our language, millennia in the making, sits in those nine chairs. The words that praised creation, told the old stories, lulled my ancestors to sleep, rest today in the tongues of nine very mortal men and women. Each in turn addresses the group of would-be students.
'A man with long braids tells how his mother hid him away when the Indian agents came to take the children. He escaped boarding school by hiding under an overhung bank where the sound of the stream covered his crying. The others were all taken and had their mouths washed out with soap, or worse, for “talking that dirty Indian language”. Because he alone stayed home and was raised calling the plants and animals by the name Creator gave them, he is here today, a carrier of the language. The engines of assimilation worked well. The speaker’s eyes blaze as he tells us, “We’re the end of the road. We are all that is left. If you young people do not learn, the language will die. The missionaries and the U.S. government will have their victory at last.”
'A great-grandmother from the circle pushes her walker up close to the microphone. “It’s not just the words will be lost,” she says. “The language is the heart of our culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the world…”
UNESCO lists Welsh as ‘vulnerable’. It doesn’t feel vulnerable at all in the safe space of this forum - it feels as if it’s blossoming. But of course, it will remain vulnerable even in its heartlands when speakers are surrounded by a sea of English online and on the street, making it challenging to live life through the medium of Welsh.
And thousands of other languages are much more endangered than Welsh. Does SSi, which has helped so many people, (much to our surprise), to learn another language, have anything to offer those languages, before it’s too late?