At a Loss for Words
On one occasion in midsummer, when Johns illness reached a crisis point, he refused to go to the hospital because he didnt want to miss our scheduled meeting the next day. As a result, he had to be rushed to the hospital in desperate condition the next morning. His fierce dedication to the task of documenting and preserving his language almost cost him his life.
Other elders I work with share his dedication to their language and the culture it expresses. Some are Pend dOreilles, like John; the rest are Bitterroot Salish (also called Flatheads). Although they are different tribes, they share the same languagewhich is called, logically enough, SalishPend dOreillealbeit with minor dialect differences.
But like so many indigenous languages on every populated continent, SalishPend dOreille is on the point of vanishing. Fewer than thirty fluent native speakers remain, and nearly all of them are elderly. The great majority of the roughly 6,000 Salish and Pend dOreille tribal members do not speak their ancestral language at all.
The fluent SalishPend dOreille speakers who work with me report that the only opportunities they have to talk Indian are at the tribes Culture Committees weekly elders meetings from the fall through the spring, and in their weekly language sessions with me during the summer. John Peter Paul, who died in 2001 at the age of ninety-two, was married to his wife Agnes PokerJim Paul, a Bitterroot Salish, for seventy-two years; they were the last married couple who spoke their language regularly at home. Their oldest daughter, Josephine Quequesah, is a fluent and highly skilled speaker of the language, but some of her younger siblings have a more passive level of fluency.
What happened to bring SalishPend dOreille to this precarious position? The obvious answerthe absolute necessity for most Americans to speak English in order to survive economically, together with the appeal of mainstream American culture to most younger tribal memberstells only part of the story. Another factor is the boarding schools that many Native children were forced to attend, starting in the nineteenth century. Those schools implemented the United States governments policy of assimilating Indians by replacing their native cultures, including their languages, with Anglo culture and English. (The policy had close parallels in Canada and Australia.)
The assimilation policies that took place on the Flathead reservationand elsewherewere often brutal. Some teachers and principals beat children for speaking their language anywhere on the school grounds.
Louis Adams, a Bitterroot Salish elder in his late seventies, recounts what happened to him in the first grade, in a public school on the reservation. He and his friend Peter Pierre were talking Indian in the hallway of the school; a teacher heard them and broke her yardstick
The policy encouraged tribal members to suppress their own language. Harriet Whitworth, a Bitterroot Salish woman now in her late eighties, wholike all the remaining fluent speakers of SalishPend dOreillehas native-speaker fluency in both English and Salish, once told me she raised her five children to speak only English: I didnt want my kids to go through what I went through. I asked whether shed do things differently if she had known then that her language was in grave danger of vanishing forever: Yes, she told me. But its too late now.
The circumstances that brought SalishPend dOreille to the brink of extinc-tion differ from the stories of other communities only in the details. All dwindling languages fight against time in the face of increasing pressures to speak a dominant language. English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin, Quechua (before the Inca Empire was destroyed by invading Spaniards), and other expanding languages have all been spoken by powerful outsiders who imposed their own order and language on subjugated, or at least less powerful, peoples. Two obvious questions arise here: Just how widespread is the phenomenon of language loss? And, more fundamentally, so what?
Before answering those questions, let me clarify that when linguists talk about language death, we are not referring to languages like Latin. Latin certainly qualifies as a dead language, but it did not die by losing all its speakers to another language; instead, it evolved into a sizable group of descendants, the modern Romance languages, almost all of which still thrive. The vanishing languages that Im talking about leave no descendants.
Estimates of the number of threatened languages vary. About 6,000 languages are spoken in the world today. Pessimists like the linguist Michael Krauss of the University of Alaska Fairbanks predict that 90 percent of them will be dead by the end of this century; optimists predict the demise of only about 60 percent by then. Either way, we are looking at a future of catastrophic language loss.
There are, of course, quite a few languages that are certainly not going to vanish in the foreseeable future: all the languages listed above except Quechua are safe, for instance. Millions of people speak those languages, many of which are official in one or more nations. In fact, among the 200 or so nations in the world, English ranks as the most popular official tongue, cited in fifty-two countries (not counting the United States, which stands nearly alone in having no official language). French follows, official in twenty-nine countries; Arabic and Spanish are tied, each with twenty-four; and Portuguese has eight countries that recognize it as official. Do the math. The count for those five languages totals 137 nationsa great majority of the worlds countries.
One might assume that other languages with at least a million speakers should also be safe, but thats not necessarily so. Quechua, with several million speakers and official-language status in Bolivia and Peru, is steadily losing ground to Spanish, which is also official in both countries. If that is so, consider the plight of smaller languages, those with only 100 to 10,000 speakersnearly half the languages in the world. Only the most isolated can be considered stable in their communities. But geographic and social isolation is itself vanishing fast, in every part of the world.
Does losing a language matter so much? Some people favor moving toward one world language, or at least toward a drastic reduction in the cacophony of thousands. One recurrent argument, voiced loudly by proponents of the English Only and Official English movements in the U.S., is that reducing the number of languages will promote understanding and therefore national (and, ultimately, world) peace. Its hard to take this argument seriously in a country that fought both a Revolution and a Civil War in which both sides spoke English, and in an era when Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, all speakers of Arabic, are killing each other by the hundreds almost daily.
Another common argument claims that English (or Arabic, or Spanish, or French, or Mandarin, or . . .) enables you to communicate anything you might want to say. According to that view, the loss of a language can be compared to the disappearance of the type of frigate that dominated Western navies in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the sailors who had mastered the intricate manipulations of the sails surely mourned their loss, but the need for effective fighting vessels made it inevitable that technological progress would sweep the sails away.
I believe, along with most other linguists and a great many minority language communities all over the world, that any such comparison fails. Sure, tearing down language barriers would streamline international business and tourism. But a language cannot be evaluated solely on grounds of efficiency. In a very real sense, you cannot say anything you want in any language. This is not a question of translatabilityof course its possible to translate sentences like Please pass the salt into any language in the worldbut of less tangible things, such as cultural ties, through language, to ones great-grandparents and to traditional ethnic ways of thinking about the world. Languages place special emphases on things and concepts that are important to their speakers:shapes of objects, meanings of certain plants and animals, fundamental ways of seeing the world. For instance, the word for automobile in SalishPend dOreille, , is named for the appearance of tire tracksliterally, it has wrinkled feet!
Most Americans who have spoken English all their lives, and whose parents and grandpar-ents also speak (or spoke) English, may find it hard to understand how a heritage language could matter so much. I got my first inkling of its importance when, right after college, I spent a year in Germany, speaking German constantly and becoming fluent. Although I was delighted with my new linguistic skill, I spent the whole year with the uncomfortable feeling that I wasnt quite the same person as when I was speaking English. It felt like a slight personality transplant, with different rhythms of thought and speech. I was glad to return to my English-speaking self when the year ended. This sort of discomfort must have a far more profound effect on people like the elders who grew up speaking SalishPend dOreille, but have had no chance to use it regularly for decades. And the elders Ive talked to feel their own loss, and their communitys loss, acutely.
In addition to the profound loss to the community, every language that dies without being thoroughly documented and analyzed robs us of potential insights into human linguistic capabilities, and reduces our chances of arriving at a comprehensive understanding of the workings of the human mind. That may sound grandioseafter all, even if upwards of 60 percent of the worlds languages vanish during this century, well still have a couple of thousand left, and besides, scholars have other tools for figuring out how the mind works. But theres a lot to the old notions that language is what makes us human and that its structures open a window into the mind.
The variation in human languages is not infinite. The fact that any human baby can learn any human language with equal ease is evidence of a fundamental similarity in all our languages. Nevertheless, the amount of variation is immense, and our understanding of the range and details of such variation can help challenge our theories about the nature of human language.
Even with the growing popularity of Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, most foreign-language study in the West involves familiar European languages. English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, and Portuguese all belong to just one of the worlds hundreds of language families, the Indo-European family.
SalishPend dOreille surprises me every summer. It includes sounds that are rarely heard in Indo-European languages: stops produced with a glottal catch, sounds produced with the air sliding noisily past the sides of the tongue (lateral fricatives), sounds pronounced far back in the pharynx (pharyngeal consonants). The alphabet used to spell the language therefore contains letters that look very different from Englishletters, as the following examples illustrate. The language has no detectable limits on the number of consonants that canoccur in a row, so that there are marvelous words like (Dont play with it!), with eight consonants in a row at the end, and (someone whose job it is to take care of livestock), with seven consonantsat the beginning. It has words as long as your tongue, for instance (he would come up to me). The short word, , means me; the long word has a root, start, preceded by two prefixes and followed by six suffixes, someof them repeated. Words in Indo-European languages dont have anything approaching this exuberant deployment ofprefixes and suffixes.
Salishmakes subtle distinctions that would require much more verbiage if expressed in an Indo-European language. Both and mean s/he hunted it, for instance, but the verb ending in és indicates that the hunter is the most prominentcharacter in the narrative, whereas the verb ending in ém indicates that some character other than the huntermaybe the huntedcreatureis more prominent than the hunter in this context. Its not that this distinction cant be expressed in English or any other Indo-European language; of course it can. But not as easily, and such specificity certainly isnt obligatory in Western languages, as it is in SalishPend dOreille. Storytellers often used this grammatical distinction to signal a subtle shift of attention from one character to another.
But like other aspects of SalishPend dOreille culture, some of the most exotic features of the language are fading: the last native speakers all speak English much more often than they speak SalishPend dOreille. To give one example of the effect that has on sound systems, only about three or four of the elders I work with pronounce clear pharyngeal consonants.
And in some semantic domains, most strikingly in the area of kinship categories and terminology, the much simpler English system has replaced much of the elaborate native SalishPend dOreille system. In my most recent session with the elders, in the summer of 2007, I wanted to find out how many of the old kinship terms are recognized by the current generation of elders. The kinship terms were compiled in 1976 with the help of a group of elders who are all now deceased.
At first the current group of elders said that they had never learned the old words; but the more they talked about their extended families, the more words they remembered. Dolly Linsebiglermentioned her fathers brother: she always called him her but after my dad died, everything changedthen he was my (aunt or uncle after the death of the connecting relative). Josephine Quequesah remembered a word, that meant either uncle or nephew, and then Louis thought of another reciprocal kin term: Yeah, like my used to call me her (great-grandparent or great-grandchild).
Dolly also commented that people who come from big families like hers got used to all the complicated terms, like (womans older brother), (middle brother), and (womans younger brother). But many words were already beyond theirmemories, unrecognized. Like other complex systems of kin terms around the world, SalishPend dOreille offers insights into the possible range of categories for human relationships. But the old system teeters on the brink of oblivion, and the same is true of intricate kinship systems all over the world.
Within the next twenty or thirty years, there will be no speakers left who learned SalishPend dOreille as a first language, spoke it regularly in their younger years, and revisited it throughout their lives. There are twenty-two other languages in the Salishan family, and they await the same sad fate. When there are no longer any Salishan speakers who remember how their grandparents and great-grandparents spoke, the old kin terms will vanish, along with the other cultural and historical riches encoded in the ancestral languages.
Language death, much too much language death, seems inevitable in this and future decades. But the picture is not completely dark. Many communities whose languages are threatened, including the SalishPend dOreille tribes, have begun vigorous efforts to document and revitalize their languages, so that todays and tomorrows children will be able to learn them. In a few spectacular recent cases, notably Maori in New Zealand and Hawaiian in the U.S., heritage languages have been restored to the communitys children. And in perhaps the most dramatic historical case, Modern Hebrew emerged as the native language of a new nations children after 2,000 years of near-death.
Even when efforts to save heritage languages fail, that doesnt mean the effort has been wasted. If fluent native speakers help document a dying language, with a full grammatical description, a dictionary, and a collection of narratives, the possibility of revival will always be there. The revived version wont match the earlier version, but it can still serve its community. It can allow traditional practices and values to be expressed without the disruptions of translation, making the past more accessible. It can contribute its unique data to the scientific understanding of the universal human capacity for language.
Ultimately, though, if a community loses its language as its main vehicle of communication, both the community and its individual members lose an irreplaceable part of their identity. And at the same time, a part of our common world that their language uniquely illuminated goes dark.
Copyright © Natural History Magazine, Inc., 2007