Foundation for Endangered Languages

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3. Language Endangerment in the News

With World Opening Up, Languages Are Losers by The Associated Press

from the New York Times Web site May 16, 1999

AMPA HERMOSA, Peru -- As she tickles her two squealing grandchildren, the woman with the long gray hair forgets herself in her joy and begins speaking in her native Chamicuro tongue.

No one understands her. So Natalia Sangama wistfully switches to Spanish -- now the language of her people, her children, her grandchildren.

"I dream in Chamicuro, but I cannot tell my dreams to anyone," the last fluent speaker of the language tells a reporter visiting her village, a cluster of thatch huts on the banks of a sky-blue lake in the Amazon jungle.

"Some things cannot be said in Spanish," Ms. Sangama said. "It's lonely being the last one."

Four other elderly inhabitants of Pampa Hermosa, 420 miles northeast of Lima, know bits and pieces of Chamicuro. But linguists say when Sangama dies, the language will die with her.

Many of the world's languages are disappearing as modern communications, migration and population growth end the isolation of ethnic groups. Linguists warn that one result is a "crash" in cultural and intellectual diversity similar to what many biologists say is happening in animal and plant species as wilderness areas are cleared.

Each language contains words that uniquely capture ideas, and when the words are lost, so are the ideas, linguists say.

At least half the world's 6,000 languages will probably die out in the next century and only 5 percent of languages are "safe," meaning they are spoken by at least a million people and receive state backing, experts say.

"There are hundreds of languages that are down to a few elderly speakers and are for the most part beyond hope of revival," said Doug Whalen, a Yale University linguist who is president of the Endangered Language Fund.

The loss of languages is damaging because when a language dies much of a culture dies with it, said Michael Krauss, a University of Alaska linguist who compares linguistic diversity to biological diversity.

The human race evolved with a diversity of languages, which formed a rich pool of varied ideas and world views, but the pool is shrinking fast, he said. As contact between cultures has grown with globalization, the process of dominant languages killing off smaller languages has accelerated, he said.

"It's a cultural narrowing," Whalen said. "It may not be plagues and pestilence, but it is a cultural disaster."

The extinction process can best be seen in places like Peru's Amazon jungle, where some languages are still being discovered while others become extinct.

"South America has languages that are only now being discovered, and as soon as they are discovered they become endangered," Whalen said. "The mechanism of discovery immediately endangers them."

The Peruvian Amazon was called a Tower of Babel by early Spanish missionaries stunned by the number of languages they found among isolated communities separated by dense jungle.

Missionaries estimated that more than 500 languages were spoken in an area half the size of Alaska. Linguists now estimate there were probably 100-150 languages, but with a dizzying array of dialects.

Today, only 57 survive and 25 of them are on the road to extinction, said Mary Ruth Wise, a linguist with the Dallas-based Summer Institute of Linguistics.

In Pampa Hermosa, the last Chamicuros live without roads, electricity or telephones, the jungle looming around the village like a dense green wall. But a radio blares Spanish news and salsa music from a station in Yurimaguas, a town eight hours away by river boat.

Smallpox, migration and assimilation into the dominant Spanish culture have reduced the number of Chamicuros from 4,000 at the time of the Spanish conquest to 125 today. They live by fishing in dugout canoes carved from tree trunks, hunting and growing corn, yucca and beans.

"In the missionary school they used to make us kneel on corn if we spoke Chamicuro," Ms. Sangama recalled.

Farther along Lake Achual Tipishca live the Cocama-Cocamillas, a more numerous tribe of former headhunters who have also lost much of their culture to the dominant Spanish mestizo society.

Carlos Murayari, a 64-year-old river fisherman, has 11 children, but none speak Cocama-Cocamilla. "I tried to teach them Cocama-Cocamilla but Spanish took over," he said. "It's like paddling against the current."

Pulling flopping lake fish from his net, Murayari said he dreams of the "Land Without Evil," the Cocama-Cocamilla heaven that awaits people who have lived well. "Maybe there I won't be so alone," he said.

"Vanishing Cultures" in the National Geographic

Martha Ratliff martha_ratliff(at) wrote:

The August 1999 issue of the National Geographic features stories on "Global Culture", and includes an article on "Vanishing Cultures" which was written with input by Joe Grimes and quotes Michael Krauss and Ken Hale.

That issue also includes a linguistic map of the world! (It paints continents in shades of the same hue, suggesting relationship where there is none, but no linguistic map is perfect . . .)

Nepal: War of words for minority groups (Newari, Maithili)

© South China Morning Post (7-11 June 1999)

A Supreme Court verdict annulling municipalities' decisions to use local languages for official correspondence has drawn flak from some of Nepal's minority communities. Some activists have threatened to take to the streets.

The court ruled that the use of Newari, a language spoken by the native segment of the population living in the capital, and Maithili, used in the flatlands bordering the Indian state of Bihar, was unconstitutional.

"The Nepali language in Devnagari script is the language of the nation of Nepal. The Nepali language shall be the official language," the constitution stipulates.

There are about 40 languages and dialects in use in Nepal - evidence of the country's ethnic diversity. All of these languages are recognised by the state, and each ethnic group is allowed to operate primary schools using its own mother tongue.

Nepali, also used in northeastern India, where it is called Gorkhali, and in Bhutan, has been Nepal's official language since the kingdom came into being in 1768.



The activists' protests last week outside the court have been criticised in newspaper editorials and by linguists. "Growth and expansion of any language is possible through well- written literature and media promotion, not through slogans and complaints," Professor Padma Prasad Devkota, of Tribhuwan University, said.

Demands that the Government adopt a multilingual policy have never won support from the Nepali elite. Their frequent riposte is that a poor country like Nepal cannot afford to use more than one official language. "Nepali, by accident or design, has become the lingua franca of inter-group communication," wrote Sanjaya Serchan in the official newspaper Rising Nepal. "{And} it is basically a question of utility and expediency."

MacArthur Fellowships honour Denny Moore, Ofelia Zepeda (syndicated from the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages opf the Americas,

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in Chicago, has named 32 new recipients of MacArthur Fellowships, which are widely known by their unofficial name as "genius grants." The fellows will receive full salary awards for 5 years in amounts determined by their age. We are proud to say that among the 32 recipients of this year's awards are two Americanists working with and for endangered languages.

Denny Moore (Coordinator of the Linguistics Division, Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, Belem-Para, Brazil). Moore, an anthropological linguist, is making important contributions to preserving the language and culture of endangered indigenous groups in Brazil. With strategies that engage both native speakers and the larger public, he leads the effort to document and preserve well over a hundred endangered languages in Brazil.

Ofelia Zepeda (Professor of Linguistics, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson, AZ). Zepeda is a linguist, poet, editor, and community leader devoted to maintaining and preserving Native American languages and to revitalizing tribal communities and cultures. Her singular work in advancing the field of Native language scholarship positions Zepeda as a unique force on behalf of the continued life of endangered languages.

Environmental destruction a threat to languages: UN Environment Programme

7 Sep 1999

(© 1999 The Nation.) Distributed via Africa News Online by Africa News Service.

Nairobi - The diversity of languages is being eroded by the unabating destruction of the environment, the United Nations Environment Programme has said. UNEP says the loss of linguistic diversity represents a huge loss in intellectual resources, necessary for solving the world's abounding problems such as poverty.

"Each culture and language is a unique tool for analysing and synthesising the world," Dr. Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of Unep says.

"To lose such a tool is to forget a way of constructing reality, to blot out the perspective evolved over many generations," he said.

According to UNEPís biodiversity programme manager, Mr. Bai-Mass Taal, there are close to 7,000 documented languages worldwide.

Of these, up to 5,000 belong to indigenous people who represent the most culturally and linguistically diverse peoples of the world.

And of all the languages presently spoken, 2,500 are in danger of extinction, a threat now recognised as a worldwide crisis, Mr. Taal said in commemoration of the fifth International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on August 9.

The International Day for the World's Indigenous Day was launched in 1994 by the United Nations to raise awareness on the plight of this marginalised group of people, and their untapped traditional wisdom. The UN also inaugurated the international decade for indigenous peoples which runs to 2004.

According to Mr. Taal, these two initiatives were intended to give indigenous peoples, such as the Ogiek, a voice in national socio-economic and political affairs, and therefore give them choices and greater opportunities in life.

Mr. Taal told journalists there were 300 million indigenous peoples scattered in more than 70 countries worldwide who live in the environmental hotspots of the world.

These areas, their homes, are threatened by over-exploitation of their great biological diversity, and habitat destruction.

"There is remarkable overlap between the mappings of the world's areas of biological megadiversity and areas of high cultural and linguistic diversity," Unep says.

"Unfortunately, these are the areas where biodiversity loss has been the most dramatic," he said.

He says the destruction of forests and other natural ecosystems has ejected indigenous peoples from their homes, forcing them to migrate to urban areas and other places where they could eke a living. Their dispersal this way breaks down community structures and cultures which promote the use of indigenous languages.

The decimation of indigenous languages breaks down a vital channel for passing on indigenous knowledge and wisdom, an under-developed repository for traditional, herbal remedies, for example.

As global socio-economic factors disrupt traditional ways of life, indigenous peoples are abandoning traditional behaviours, indigenous knowledge and their languages which are the repositories and means of transmission of knowledge on preserving biodiversity and promoting sustainability," Unep says. The loss of language and culture destroys self-worth limiting the potential of the affected peoples and complicating efforts aimed at addressing vices such as the breakdown of family structures, substance abuse and school failures and dropouts.