- Video: Last Speaker of "Extinct" Language Found
The extinction of a language translates into a loss of knowledge, said
K. David Harrison, associate director of the Living Tongues Institute
for Endangered Languages and a linguist at Swarthmore College.
"When we lose a language, we lose
centuries of thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer,
edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and
the everyday," he said.
Half of the world's languages have disappeared
in the last 500 years, and half of the remainder are likely to vanish
during this century, Harrison said.
Many of the languages are not easily
translated into English. In the endangered south Siberian language Todzhu,
for example, the word "chary" means "2-year-old male
castrated reindeer that can be used for riding."
Harrison and Living Tongues Director
Gregory D.S. Anderson have identified five language "hot spots"
where the extinction rate is particularly high, they said at a news
conference sponsored by the National Geographic Society, which supports
One such area encompasses Oklahoma,
Texas and New Mexico, where 40 languages spoken by Native Americans
are at risk. Only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe, for example,
are fluent in the Yuchi language, which may be unrelated to any other
language in the world.
The top hot spot is northern Australia,
where 153 languages spoken by Aborigines are at risk. There are currently
only three known speakers of Magati Ke in the Northern Territory and
three Yawuru speakers. The team found one elderly speaker of Amurdag
-- which had previously been declared extinct -- and he could barely
recall the language spoken by his father.
Other hot spots include central South
America, parts of the Pacific Northwest and eastern Siberia. All the
areas are similar in that they were colonized with indigenous languages
giving way to a colonial language either voluntarily or through coercion.
A map of the hot spots is at www.languagehotspots.org.
The Native American languages in Oklahoma
are giving way to English, Anderson said. That process has already taken
place on the East Coast, which was colonized earlier. Virtually all
indigenous languages have disappeared there.
Researchers from the Living Tongues
Institute are visiting these locales and using digital audio and video
equipment to record the last speakers of the most endangered tongues.
"In many cases, these are the first and only digital recordings
of the languages," Anderson said.
In as few as seven to 10 days, they
can record enough information to prevent the complete loss of a language,