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3. Lang. Endangerment in the News

Brazil’s Tariana and Sasha Aikhenvald: For Want of a Word [from New Scientist 9 April 2004::

Photo by Michael Amendolia

Imagine how different politics would be if debates were conducted in Tariana, an Amazonian language in which it is a grammatical error to report something without saying how you found it out - as Alexandra Aikhenvald tells us its speakers tell her. Tariana is in danger of dying. With each such disappearance we risk losing insights into different ways of thinking. Aikhenvald told Adrian Barnett about the race to record languages

Tell us about recording a dying language... A student of mine found an old man who said, “Yes, I speak Baré” - an Amazonian language that we thought was extinct. I checked that he knew the few Baré words I knew, then I sat down and talked with him for two months. Senhor Candelário was a great man. He would tell hunting stories, and stories about his life.

His mother had been the only person he could speak Baré with. After she died he kept it alive by talking to himself when he was drunk. So the language had been almost literally pickled in alcohol until I recorded it. When I left we both said: “See you again.” Six months later I got news that he had died.

So Baré died with him?
A language doesn’t fall over a precipice, it sort of slides into oblivion. A few people know five Baré words here, 20 there. Some become “rememberers,” that is, they can proudly recite poems or stories at length, but have no idea what they mean. At that stage all the concepts, the elegance and the embodied world view have gone. You just have shards. So functionally, yes, Baré is gone.

Isn’t it dangerous, travelling to these remote places?
I suppose it is, but because I am a woman and alone, people trust me and I can get information that would probably be impossible otherwise. I did once have to run away from a drunken miner. But that was in a town. In the more remote villages they like me, I have respect and I am safe. I have also been adopted into families.

And the environment?
I have seen snakes. People think that if you go to these places you must be some kind of Indiana Jones character but I am not. I grew up in a big city. I can’t swim. I can’t even ride a bicycle.

That makes you sound braver still, canoeing on jungle rivers...
Maybe just light-headed. I don't think about it. I can’t possibly learn to swim. But it’s incredibly fascinating to discover a whole language. Of course, when I come back I usually have some sort of infection or stomach disease. But eventually I get better and then I want to go back.

How do you explain what you are doing?
When I was preparing a bilingual dictionary of Tariana - another Amazonian language - and Portuguese I gave a workshop and about 300 people came. I showed them this very poor, very old Tariana grammar book and explained that I wanted to do a more truthful one - I said, “Your names will be on it because it is a community book.” And they said, “Oh yes, then we can teach our children better. This old book has many mistakes. Our language will be like Portuguese, it'll be a proper language.”

And what does that mean to them?
In that area you are identified with your father’s language, and if you speak a borrowed language like Portuguese instead, you are a lesser person. But with a dictionary they can say, “Now, I am learning my father’s language back” and this gives them some security and confidence. They start to speak it with pride and not apologetically. I find that very rewarding.

What happens then? You can hardly say to most people, “So, tell me about your transitive verbs...”
I always do whatever the people in the village are doing. If I didn’t join in they would treat me differently. When I hear something interesting I either ask a direct question or I get them to tell me stories. I ask questions and people say, “Oh, how did you know that? OK, we will talk to you more.”

Once I asked, “Can I use this word this way?” and the response was, “Of course, you’re foreign, you can say a wrong thing. But I can't say that.”

What’s the most difficult language you've come across?
It took me 10 years to get the grammar of Tariana. Of course, Finnish is probably harder.

How did you become fascinated by languages?
I grew up in Moscow, in what was supposed to be a monolingual society, but in the street I’d hear all sorts of different accents and speech patterns.

Then we used to go to Estonia for our summer holidays. If you spoke Russian to an Estonian they ignored you but if you learned some Estonian they were very nice.

Also my great-uncles and great-aunts were Jewish, educated people originally from Ukraine, and I was intrigued by the consistent language mistakes they made.

And at school?
When I was 11 and I was rebelling, I collected the phrase “I don't want to go to school” in as many languages as I could find. I had it in 52.

What languages did you study formally?
At university I started on Balto-Finnic languages, as I already knew Estonian. Then my supervisor said, “With your name, the authorities will never let you be a mainstream scholar in the USSR.” I should study something obscure. I had a Jewish name and Russia was very anti-Semitic. I looked around, became fascinated by Hittite and the Anatolian family of languages, and that became my master’s.

A colleague recommended Berber for my PhD. It was the classic colonial situation: the French linguists had dismissed these languages as “just dialects,” so there were some 14 languages that no one was studying.

How did you get from North Africa to the Amazon?
Perestroika started, thankfully, and I saw this job in southern Brazil. I got it, then found that many Brazilian linguists are extremely possessive of “their” languages. But there is this huge Arawak language family, spanning South America, whose members are as different from each other as English is from German and are as different from members of other language families as these are from Hungarian.

So few linguists study Arawak languages that you can just pick and choose. I decided to go to the least explored part, which is where Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia meet. I arrived at this tiny border town and within a few days of just walking around I heard two languages that were supposed to be extinct.

How do you reach the more remote groups?
I arrive in the town, some people will pick me up and we go upriver in one of their canoes. I think they cooperate partly because I am not Brazilian. There is a lot of institutionalised racism in Brazil and as a foreigner I am seen as being outside that. It helps immensely. And these people are trying to protect their cultural traditions and languages against encroaching linguistic dominance - this international monolingualism.

Why is it important to preserve these languages?
First, to learn about how people communicate and how the human mind works. What are the categories that are important enough for people to express them in their languages?

If these so-called “exotic” languages die, we’ll be left with just one world view. This won’t be very interesting, and we’ll have lost a vast amount of information about human nature and how people perceive the world.

Second, without their language and its structure, people are rootless. In recording it you are also getting down the stories and folklore. If those are lost a huge part of a people’s history goes. These stories often have a common root that speaks of a real event, not just a myth. For example, every Amazonian society ever studied has a legend about a great flood.

What’s your favourite example of a big difference between languages?
In English I can tell my son: “Today I talked to Adrian,” and he won’t ask: “How do you know you talked to Adrian?” But in some languages, including Tariana, you always have to put a little suffix onto your verb saying how you know something - we call it “evidentiality.” I would have to say: “I talked to Adrian, non-visual,” if we had talked on the phone. And if my son told someone else, he would say: “She talked to Adrian, visual, reported.” In that language, if you don’t say how you know things, they think you are a liar.

This is a very nice and useful tool. Imagine if, in the argument about weapons of mass destruction, people had had to say how they knew about whatever they said. That would have saved us quite a lot of breath.

And what about different types of vocabulary?
The story about Inuit words for snow is completely wrong. That language group uses multiple suffixes, so you can derive not 50, but 150 words for snow. But the Tariana do have a lot of terms for ants. It is important to know that some bite and others are edible, for instance.

Do languages hold any surprises for you?
I had been working with Tariana for nine years before I came across the word for “purple.” I was astounded. I did not realise there could be a word for purple in a language that does not distinguish between green and blue.

Such things get languages described as “primitive”...
There is no such thing as a primitive language. Many tribal people now speak several languages. They can often learn English or Portuguese much more easily than incomers can learn their language.

People complain about irregular verbs in Portuguese, but that’s nothing compared to the irregular verb structure in Navaho, for example. I’ve known missionaries say, “These Indians, they are just making it up ad hoc. They are just doing it to be difficult and to keep us out.” Such people do not appreciate the level of sophistication and complexity some of these languages have reached.

How do you decide when to stop gathering information?
With Tariana I stopped when I was not finding any new verbs. There were still more names for birds and ants. But I could not identify all of them anyway. And there are so many languages to work on. A dictionary means that the language is not completely lost and it empowers those who speak the language to preserve their cultural identity. That’s good.

How many languages have disappeared in the last century?
About 60 or 70 per cent of linguistic diversity in the north-western region of Brazil has gone in the last 100 years. On the Atlantic coast of Brazil it’s worse - about 99 per cent - and around the world the figure is 60 to 70 per cent. It has been very rapid.

Is there a lost language that you would love to have spoken?
Oh, yes. So many, so many ...

What language do you dream in?
If I dream of Tariana, they speak Tariana. Sometimes I dream of Estonia, and they speak Estonian. In my nightmares, people speak to me and I understand, but I can’t answer ...

Chiricahua Apache: Movie spurs interest in ‘Missing’ dialect
Tuesday, December 16, 2003

SANTA FE, New Mexico (AP) Word swept through the Mescalero reservation like an early winter wind that characters in the film, The Missing, spoke a dialect of Apache. Most adult Apaches in the audiences have said they could understand every word of the Chiricahua dialect. That’s what Mescalero councilman, Berle Kanseah and Chiricahua linguist, Elbys Hugar intended as technical advisers for the new Ron Howard film. “Television and popular culture are killing minority cultures, starting with language,” Kanseah said. It was the first film that any of them could remember in which Apache was spoken well enough on screen to be understood. Usually, Westerns were dubbed in Navajo, a related language, said supporting actor Steve Reevis, a Montana Blackfoot, who has worked several films but never spoken Apache before The Missing.

The film is set in southwestern New Mexico in 1885, just as the last of the Apache conflict was ending. The slavers are led by a brujo, a medicine man gone bad, played by Eric Schweig. “Many Apaches have gone back two and three times to see the film,” Kanseah added.

The producers gave a screening for 500 Mescalero students in Alamogordo last month, and the tribe has been bussing students to cinemas in nearby Ruidoso. “It made me feel proud,” said Megan Crespin, 8, from Santo Domingo School. There aren’t that many Chiricahuas left. They were rounded up and sent to Florida in 1886, shunted back to Alabama, Oklahoma and finally to the Mescalero homeland in south-central New Mexico in 1913.

There are only about 300 people who are fluent in Chiricahua today.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ raises profile of Aramaic

The heartening decision to shoot this film in its supposed original languages — Aramaic and Latin — has provoked a sudden widespread recognition that, despite the urban myth, English was not "good enough for Jesus" after all. Indeed, one of Mel Gibson's motives for choice of language is reputedly that he wanted to get away from the association with "British English" that seem to be hang about movie treatments of Christ and his era.

A number of press articles have appeared which endeavour to trace the few remaining modern speakers of Jesus's mother tongue (which had once been spoken from Egypt to the Hindu Kush as the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and which, borne by Christian missonaries, would later go on to reach Kerala and Mongolia). One small community where it survives close to its origins, in Ma'aloula, Syria, has been particularly favoured. (see e.g. the Financial Times article of 27 March by Kim Ghattas at
press7/187C35.htm ) Many more articles are gathered at but few throw much light on the features of Aramaic "as she is spoke" in the reconstruction of Fr William Fulco. Here are a couple of articles which give a little more linguistic information, and incidentally suggest a little of what it takes to revive a language of the past, even for such a momentary resurrection as a film-shoot.

I'll teach you to speak Aramaic Bill Cleveland (Georgetown Voice) 26 Feb 2004

Three years ago, Fr. William Fulco, S.J. received a phone call from a production company asking him to help translate a movie script. "Hey, Padre, its Mel. I've got a project for you," said a voice on the other end of the phone. As a professor of Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he teaches courses like "Near Eastern Archaeology" and "Intermediate Classical Hebrew," his litany of languages includes Aramaic and Latin. Fulco realized he was speaking to Mel Gibson, and soon agreed to help Gibson work on The Passion of The Christ, a movie version of the biblical story that comes out this week. The film's dialogue is completely in Aramaic and Latin. Fulco helped with both.

Translating the script was not a simple exercise. "A lot of the language is an artistic interpretation," says Fulco. "You have to get a story out of it. The problem is that the thinking in ancient languages is different from the thinking in English. It's not just like a mathematical transcription; it's a different way of thinking."

The Aramaic was particularly challenging, as it is a language with no tenses. Fulco's task was further complicated by a lack of information about Aramaic as it was used during the first century. "We have Aramaic documents from the Hebrew Bible, but that's about four or five hundred years earlier," he says. The next set of extant texts is about 500 years too late. The difference is far from negligible: "Aramaic changes as much as English did from Beowulf to Chaucer to modern English," says Fulco. "But we wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I tried to be as plausible as I could with the Aramaic."

Fulco's work on the movie began as translator, but he quickly realized he would need to be on the set to coach the actors in delivering their lines.

"I had to coach all of the actors with everything they said. I gave them a phonetic transcription and I also gave them, beneath the phonetic transcription, the exact translation," he says. The idea was to get the actors to understand the meaning of each sound, and emphasize accordingly, and it seems to have worked. Many people who have seen the movie commented that the actors speak Aramaic as if it was their first language. "For some strange reason, I think they had an easier time with the Aramaic than with the Latin," he says. "They worked harder with it. It was more foreign to them and more fun to do, whereas everybody thought they knew a bit of Latin and they were caught off guard."

Fulco then retranslated most of the ancient dialogue back into English. In the film, this retranslated script is used in the subtitles to give audiences a truer sense of the dialogue…

Jesuit scholar who translated The Passion Nathan Bierma (Chicago Tribune), 3 Mar 04

… In 2002, Gibson gave Fulco the script written by Benedict Fitzgerald, mostly derived from the Gospels, and asked Fulco to translate it into Aramaic , Hebrew and Latin. Fulco later translated the script back into English subtitles.

The use of multiple languages in the film reflects the linguistic diversity of Palestine during Jesus' life. Most people spoke Aramaic, which the Jews adopted while exiled in Babylon in the 6th Century before Jesus' birth. Hebrew, their language before the exile, was retained in religious writings and liturgy (and is spoken by Jesus in prayer in "The Passion"). Latin was spoken by the Roman soldiers occupying the region. Greek was spoken throughout the Roman Empire, thanks to Alexander the Great, but was seen as a sign of secularization and thus resisted by many Jews.

Fulco left Greek out of The Passion, substituting Latin in occasional cases where Greek might have been used. He also made mostly imperceptible distinctions between the elegant Latin of Pilate and the crude Latin of soldiers, thanks to an X-rated source he found on his shelf.

"I tracked down some obscene graffiti from Roman army camps," Fulco said. "Somebody who knows Latin really well, their ears will fall off. We didn't subtitle those words."

Fulco even confessed to some linguistic mischief.

"Here and there I put in playful things which nobody will know. There's one scene where Caiaphas turns to his cohorts and says something in Aramaic. The subtitle says, `You take care of it.' He's actually saying, `Take care of my laundry.'"

Other linguistic tricks of Fulco's serve a function in the script.

For example, he incorporated deliberate dialogue errors in the scenes where the Roman soldiers, speaking Aramaic, are shouting to Jewish crowds, who respond in Latin. To illustrate the groups' inability to communicate with each other, each side speaks with incorrect pronunciations and word endings.

Later, "there's an exchange where Pilate addresses Jesus in Aramaic, and Jesus answers in Latin. It's kind of a nifty little symbolic thing: Jesus is going to beat him at his own game," Fulco said. "One line [in that exchange] I kind of enjoyed is when Jesus says, `My power is given from above, otherwise my followers would not have allowed this.' That's [spoken in] the pluperfect subjunctive."

It takes a linguist to appreciate that grammatical nicety as remarkable for being uttered by a Palestinian Jew who mostly spoke Aramaic and Greek.

For the relatively few Middle Eastern Christians who still speak Aramaic, "The Passion" may sound riddled with mistakes -- spurring Fulco to point out, "modern Aramaic dialects are as different [from ancient ones] as Chaucer and modern English."

Still, now that the movie is in general release, Fulco fully expects to get an earful about his use of languages.

"We linguists are a crazy bunch," he said. "The more obscure the language, the more people try to prove their territory worthwhile and say, by God, we're going to sniff out errors."

Chile's Kawesqar, Yaghan: Say No More By JACK HITT: New York Times, February 29, 2004

Languages die the way many people do; at home, in silence, attended by loved ones straining to make idle conversation. “Did you sell any baskets,” Gabriela Paterito asks her neighbour, Francisco Arroyo in her vowelly Spanish. She’s in her two-room snack in Puerto Eden, a tiny fishing village on Wellington Island in the Patagonia region of southern Chile. There is a long, long silence. She’s a short woman, dense from some 70 years of life, but with a girl’s head of beautiful black hair. In the room are Francisco and a few others, among the last six speakers of Kawesqar, the language native to these parts since the last ice age.

Linguists now estimate that half of the more than 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world will become extinct by the end of this century. In reaction, there are numerous efforts to slow the die-off – from graduate students heading into the field to compile dictionaries, to charitable foundations devoted to the cause, like the Endangered Language Fund, to transnational agencies, some with melancholic names appropriate to the task, like the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages.

Chile started a modest program, not long after the ugly debates surrounding Christopher Columbus in 1992, to save Kawesqar (Ka-WES-kar) and Yaghan, the last two native languages of southern Chile. But how does one salvage an ailing language when the economic advantages of, say, Spanish are all around you? And is it possible to step inside a dying language to learn whether it can be saved and, more rudely, whether it should be?

Gabriela crams another stick into her wood stove to keep us dry and warm. The rain is coming now like nails, as it does most days. The silence stretches out. You begin to feel it, like a cold draft. Three or four aching minutes of it. My boots need some examining.

“Canastos,” mutters Francisco, repeating the Spanish word for baskets, his grunting tone suggesting a bad day. When languages die under the pressure of a dominant tongue like Spanish, there is a familiar path of retreat. The language will withdraw from the public sphere first, hiding out in the living rooms and kitchens of the fluent, where it becomes increasingly private and intimate and frail. Francisco takes a two-foot length of reedy grass and softens it by rubbing it against the stove. All around weaving begins –the distinctive Kawesqar baskets, small with long grassy handles.


“It’s been raining all day,” Francisco adds, again in Spanish.  

Juan Carlos, who is 39 and my guide, motions me to give him a cigarette. Juan Carlos was born and grew up here but left at 15 for school. Now college-educated, he has devoted his life and work to helping the Kawesqar community. (He has just finished a documentary film about the Kawesqar.) He doesn't smoke, he told me, except here. For the last few days, smoking and enduring long silences have pretty much accounted for our social life. I haven’t smoked seriously for 15 years. I’m blowing through two packs a day.

Every window here frames a magnificent photo op. Outside Gabriela’s is a curving line of shacks hugging the shore of a small bay, bright red and yellow fishing boats beached in front, and behind, a dramatic ascent of mountains capped in white, gushing here and there with little snow-melt waterfalls. Full-spectrum rainbows break out so frequently that no one notices but me and the tourists. They, too, are visible out of the window, all wearing their orange cruise-ship-issue rain slickers, their cameras aimed aloft. To get here, it’s a three-day chug by boat through the cold, uninhabited island channels of Patagonia. Once a week, the tourists come. They have less than an hour onshore to feel the intensity of its remote beauty (and maybe buy a native basket) before motoring out to the anchored cruise ship and a night of pisco sours.

“A lot of rain,” announces Juan Carlos. The fire crackles and hisses. The rain continues, staccato. “Rain,” Gabriela adds.

I sit quietly, smoking my way through their Samuel Beckett dialogue. “Not many baskets,” Francisco says, offering his full report. I wonder if I should ask them to speak Kawesqar, but I don’t want to intrude. I want to get a sense of when they naturally converse in their language. Later, Juan Carlos tells me that the elder Kawesqar feel awkward speaking their moribund language around me. It’s a combination of embarrassment and a sense that they don’t want to make me feel uncomfortable. As the rain pours down, I light up a cigarette. My very presence here to observe this thing, difficult to see, has made it disappear.

The Kawesqar are famous for their adaptation to this cold, rainy world of islands and channels. The first Europeans were stunned. The Kawesqar and the other natives of the region travelled in canoes, naked, oiled with blubber, occasionally wearing an animal skin. The men sat at the front and hunted sea lions with spears. The women paddled. The children stayed in the sanctuary between their parents, maintaining fire in a sand pit built in the middle of the canoe. Keeping fire going in a land of water was the most critical and singular adaptation of the Kawesqar. As a result, fire blazed continuously in canoes and at the occasional landfall. The first European explorers marvelled at the sight of so much fire in a wet and cold climate, and the Spanish named the southernmost archipelago the land of fire, Tierra del Fuego.

When Charles Darwin first encountered the Kawesqar and the Yaghans, years before he wrote The Origin of Species, he is said to have realized that man was just another animal cunningly adapting to local environmental conditions. But that contact and the centuries to follow diminished the Kawesqar, in the 20th century, to a few dozen individuals. In the 1930s, the remaining Kawesqar settled near a remote military installation – Puerto Eden, now inhabited mostly by about 200 Chileans from the mainland who moved here to fish.

The pathology of a dying language shifts to another stage once the language has retreated to the living room. You can almost hear it disappearing. There is Grandma, fluent in the old tongue. Her son might understand her, but he also learned Spanish and grew up in it. The grandchildren all learn Spanish exclusively and giggle at Grandma’s funny chatter.

In two generations, a healthy language, even one with hundreds of thousands of speakers, can collapse entirely, sometimes without anyone noticing. This process is happening everywhere. In North America, the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans who followed him whittled down the roughly 300 native languages to only about 170 in the 20th century. According to Marianne Mithun, a linguist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the recent evolution of English as a global language has taken an even greater toll. “Only one of those 170 languages is not officially endangered today,” Mithun said: “Greenlandic Eskimo.”

Without the revitalization of youth, a language can go from being alive to endangered (declining speakers among the young), then moribund (only elderly speakers left alive), then dead (the last known speaker dies) all linguistic terms of art.

William Sutherland, the author of a study in Nature magazine last spring, compared the die-off to an environmental catastrophe. According to Sutherland, 438 languages are in the condition of Kawesqar, that is, with fewer than 50 speakers, making them “critically endangered” a category that in the animal world includes 182 birds and 180 mammals. Languages “seem to follow the same patterns” as animals, Sutherland told a reporter for Bloomberg News. “Stability and isolation seem to breed abundance in the number of bird and animal species, and they do the same for languages.” Conversely, the instability and homogenization of the global economy is creating a juggernaut of monoculture, threatening plants and animals. But, Sutherland makes clear; the one life form even more endangered is human culture.

According to Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, authors of Vanishing Voices, the last time human language faced such a crisis of collapse was when we invented farming, around 8000 B.C., during the switch-over from highly mobile hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture. Then the multitude of idioms developed on the run cohered into language families, like Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Elamo-Dravidian. The difference this time is that with each language gone, we may also lose whatever knowledge and history were locked up in its stories and myths, along with the human consciousness embedded in its grammatical structure and vocabulary.

One often hears the apocryphal story about the Inuit and their 40 words for “snow.” True or not, it acknowledges the inherent human sense that each language, developed over a certain time and geography, is a revelation of what we call “a sense of place.” To let languages die out, en masse, is to permit the phrase “terra incognita” to creep back onto our environmental maps. One organization of linguists, biologists and anthropologists, known as Terralingua, is working to keep languages alive by highlighting what gets lost when they fade away. “I remember when I was doing fieldwork in Mexico,” said Luisa Maffi, Terralingua’s president. She encountered a man whose native Mayan was already blurred with Mexican Spanish. He had travelled with his 2-year-old daughter to a health clinic because she was sick with serious diarrhoea. “He no longer knew the word for yakan k’ulub wamal,” she said, using the Mayan term for a plant long known to cure the problem. “It was probably growing in his backyard.”

A handful of linguists dismiss salvage efforts like Terralingua’s as futile exercises. They say languages just die, as spoken Latin did, and then are reborn as French, Spanish and Italian. No big deal. Or more bluntly, all this sentimentality about dying languages is just another symptom of academe’s mewling, politically correct minority-mongering. In the magazine Prospect, the writer Kenan Malik summarized this position in an essay titled Let Them Die.

“There is nothing noble or authentic about local ways of life; they are often simply degrading and backbreaking,” Malik argued. “What if half the world’s languages are on the verge of extinction? Let them die in peace.”

Linguists counter that yes, there is a natural process of language death; but the order of magnitude of the current die-off is what should create concern. What’s happening with human culture now, they say, should shock people the way the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 radically changed how many thought about the environment.

To general linguists, the dismissive position is just deliberate ignorance. But they also argue that the utilitarian case is too narrow. In peril is not just knowledge but also the importance of diversity and the beauty of grammar. They will tell you that every language has its own unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews. For example, because of the Kawesqar’s nomadic past, they rarely use the future tense; given the contingency of moving constantly by canoe, it was all but unnecessary. The past tense, however, has fine gradations. You can say, “A bird flew by.” And by the use of different tenses, you can mean a few seconds ago, a few days ago, a time so long ago that you were not the original observer of the bird (but you know the observer yourself) and, finally, a mythological past, a tense the Kawesqar use to suggest that the story is so old that it no longer possesses fresh descriptive truth but rather that other truth which emerges from stories that retain their narrative power despite constant repetition.

“There was once a man and a woman who killed a sacred deer,” Gabriela began, translating into Spanish a Kawesqar tale told in the mythological tense. “Afterward a great flood came. The waters rose until they were standing in it up to their waist. Everyone died but the man and the woman.” Then, in time, she went on, from just these last two Kawesqar, they figured out a way to endure, repopulate the land and revive the life of the Kawesqar among the channel islands.

Outside, the rain kept coming down.

The rhythm of Puerto Eden became easier after a few days. The fishermen headed out in the morning, and the rest of us made social calls. In time, I got to hear some actual Kawesqar spoken, and it sounded a lot like Hollywood’s generic Apache, but with a few unique and impossible sounds. I learned to say (My name is Jack, what’s yours?)

During these visits, always and constantly, dominant-culture television hollered at us from a corner. Besides meeting the Kawesqar in Puerto Eden, I have to say, I caught up on a lot of missed episodes of “MacGyver” and “Baywatch.”

Later in the week, Juan Carlos and I spent more time at his sister’s house, and there the evidence of European culture insinuating itself deeply into the minds and habits of the Kawesqar was everywhere.

Maria Isabel is a few years older than her brother. She was sick as a child and was raised in Punta Arenas, on the Chilean mainland. She studied and lived in metropolitan Santiago. She never had a Kawesqar youth and can't speak the language.

“I am Kawesqar,” she told me in Spanish, as if to acknowledge the inexplicable tug identity has on all of us. When I asked her if she intended to learn her mother’s language, she insisted that she would. “I hope next year,” she said, unconvincingly.

I spent a lot of time with Maria Isabel because her husband, Luis, was installing their first flushable toilet. When we weren’t talking about Kawesqar, we were measuring holes, figuring out how to run a sewer pipe into the bay and reading the toilet-assembly instructions (helpfully printed in five dominant languages). Eventually, the hole was properly centred, so we set down the beeswax ring, lifted the porcelain carefully and pressed it into its permanent location.

Does anything say Western dominance quite like the flush of a private john?

Well, maybe one other thing. In our intimate chats and smokes, Juan Carlos told me about his own three children. He lives with them back on the mainland, in a house where two other adults speak some Kawesqar. One is Juan Carlos’s brother, Jose, a professor of anthropology at the Universidad Arcis Magallanes in Punta Arenas.

And the other is Oscar Aguilera, a linguist at the university. He’s of Spanish descent, but he has devoted his life’s work to the language of the Kawesqar.

Aguilera arrived in Puerto Eden from Santiago in 1975 with the simple intention of “describing” the language as a linguist. There he met a people nearly cut off from the outside world. Among the little contact they’d had, oddly, was with NASA. The space agency came to the village in 1959 to conduct experiments on the ability of humans to withstand extremely cold temperatures. An elderly villager told Aguilera that the NASA scientists asked one Kawesqar man to sit naked in a cold tent with his feet in a bucket of water. He fled in the middle of the night.

Aguilera befriended Gabriela’s in-laws and knew Gabriela’s husband well. He got to know her two young boys, and when they were teenagers, Aguilera took them to Santiago, where they finished school and went to college. Now they all live together in Punta Arenas with Juan Carlos’s three young children, who use the affectionate term for “grandfather” with Aguilera.

When I visited the home for dinner one night, the three children ran up to greet me. They attend the local British school, and so were taught in Spanish and English. One little girl proudly read me last night’s homework: “I played in the yard,” and “I rode my Bicycle,” she beamed. It’s cool speaking the dominant language.

Later, I asked Juan Carlos why they didn’t speak Kawesqar at home. Wouldn’t it make sense, since the children were at that magic language-acquisition stage of youth?

“We are going to teach them later,” he said. Juan Carlos added that they needed the proper books. Of course, Aguilera is the man who compiled the grammar and teaching manual for Kawesqar and is working on a dictionary with Jose. But government funds for these projects are spotty, and Aguilera admits it will be years before they are completed.

Their answers revealed just how difficult language resurrection is. Learning a language, even your mother’s, requires enormous motivation. Plus, Juan Carlos and Jose say they are “semi-speakers”- in part because they were taken away from home so young to be educated in Spanish-dominated schools. Even the fluent Kawesqar speakers in Puerto Eden have occasionally asked Aguilera, the lexicographer, to remind them of a certain word. “Some days,” Aguilera told me when we were alone for a while, “I think that I might be the last speaker of Kawesqar.”

Among linguists, the sorrowful story of the “last speaker” is practically a literary genre. The names ring out, like a Homeric catalogue. Ned Maddrell, the last speaker of Manx, died in the village of Cregneash on the Isle of Man in 1974. Tevfik Esenc, the last speaker of Ubykh, died in Turkey in 1992. Red Thunder Cloud, the last speaker of Catawba, died in 1996. More are coming. Marie Smith-Jones in Alaska, the last speaker of Eyak, is 83 years old.

Farther south from the Kawesqar, I learned, lived the last speaker of Yaghan. Many people urged me to visit Puerto Williams and its native settlement, called Ukika, because of that intriguing notion, that all of Yaghan now dwells entirely in the mind of one elderly woman, Cristina Calder—n.

Right away, though, I discovered that the “last speaker” of Yaghan is accustomed to charging passengers from the cruise ship that arrives each week for the privilege of taking her picture or hearing a few of the last words in her unusual-sounding language. From me she wanted impossible sums of money. When I tried to sneak in early one morning for a quick interview, word travelled in the village so fast that within minutes her granddaughter/booking agent was through the door and a screaming match broke out (not in Yaghan).

That night, Aguilera and I decided to pursue a rumour that there was in fact another Yaghan, a penultimate speaker named Emelinda, who hadn’t mastered the cruise-ship racket. We managed to get inside Emelinda’s house without attracting attention.

She was a kind old woman whose Yaghan, according to Aguilera, was authentic. Our conversation was brief and brittle. When I asked Emelinda what could be done to keep Yaghan alive, she said she was already doing it, as if a formal programme were under way. “I talk to myself in Yaghan,” Emelinda explained in Spanish. “When I hang up my clothes outside, I say the words in Yaghan. Inside the house, I talk in Yaghan all day long.”

I asked her if she ever had a conversation with the only other person in the world who could easily understand her, Cristina Calderón, the official “last speaker” of Yaghan. “No,” Emelinda said impatiently, as if I’d brought up a sore topic. “The two of us don’t talk.”

After returning from Chile, I learned that the last-speaker hustle isn’t new. Remember Red Thunder Cloud, the last Catawba speaker? Actually, he was Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West, the son of an African-American druggist in Newport, R.I. According to Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian, West was “a great mimic and fast learner.” He quickly mastered the language, donned some turquoise jewellery and, until his death in 1996, worked the last-speaker circuit. Usually, he could be found at county fairs, hawking Red Thunder Cloud’s Accabonac Princess American Indian Tea: “fresh from the American forest to you.”

There’s a paradox in those last-speaker stories. After all, what is driving these languages off the cliff but sheer economics? It only makes a kind of poetic sense that in their death throes their speakers would resort to economic ploys. But this is also where the environmental metaphor of endangered languages falls apart. Getting down to a few in number is irreversibly the end of, say, a fern or a tiger. For humans, it’s often the beginning of politics.

The very success of English as a global language is prompting a revival of ancestral tongues. Compared to the die-off now in progress, it’s a drop in the bucket. Still, many native American languages have reacted against these near-death experiences. The Miami in Oklahoma and the Mohawk straddling the Canadian border have full-scale programmes for language revival. Native Hawaiian, also written off only a few decades ago, has 18 schools teaching a new generation in the original language of the islands.

Partly with money from government lawsuits: the Catawba received $50 million in 1993 after suing over land claim disputes dating to 1760, and partly with revenue from casinos, many of these tribes are rushing to get the programmes up and running before the last of the speaking elders die. The Tuscarora tribe near Niagara Falls, N.Y., is down to Howdy Hill, the last speaker who grew up learning the language at home. But now a revival program claims as many as 25 new speakers.

Other languages are long past the last speaker, yet revival is still not out of the question. Stephanie Fielding is the great-great-niece of Fidelia Fielding, the last speaker of Mohegan, who died in 1908. Fielding is currently enrolled in M.I.T.’s linguistics programme. She is 58 and devoted to resurrecting her ancestors’ language, largely from her aunt’s diaries. The academic degree to which she aspires has not yet been accredited. A master's with a concentration in “language reclamation” will be available from M.I.T. at the earliest by 2005 or 2006, according to Norvin Richards, an associate professor of linguistics.

“The number of people who contacted us in the last year is about 20, which in linguistics is a bit largish,” Richards said. M.I.T. will have to compete with the University of Arizona and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which already offer reclamation degrees.

Most of these language-revival movements model themselves on the national language of Israel. For more than two millenniums, Hebrew was found almost exclusively in Scripture and rabbinical writings. Its retreat was nearly complete – out of the public square, into the house and finally into the scrolls of the Torah. But the early pioneers of what would become Israel faced a politically charged question: which of their languages should dominate? Ashkenazi Yiddish? Russian? German? Sephardic Ladino? The commonly agreed-upon answer was supplied by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Jewish linguist who used the stiff, formal language of the Bible to conjure into existence a modern version – now the main language of 3.6 million people. (Of course, Hebrew’scomeback has helped drive Yiddish and Ladino into “endangered” status.)

Language revival as a means of identity politics may well be the way of the future. The big fight in linguistics over the past two decades has been about English First. But first is no longer the question. Now the question is: What will be your second language? In America, the drift in high-school curriculum has always been toward a second dominant language; French, Spanish, German, maybe Chinese if you’re a rebel. But what if the second language could be that of your ancestors?

That possibility is already proving to be quite popular with many people. As their initiatives succeed and become more visible, they will drive into the open a question for English-speaking Americans, the owner-operators of the dominant linguistic ecosystem. Do we want to dwell in a society that encourages linguistic revival and cultural diversity, knowing that with it may come a lot of self-righteous minority-pitying? Or, shall we just sit contentedly amid a huge cultural die-off, harrumphing like some drunk uncle at the family reunion angrily spilling his beer and growling, “Let ‘em die.” Keep in mind that if the actuarial tables are correct, it means that once the languages start to die off in earnest, there will be a “death of the last speaker” article in the papers, on average, every 12 days.