World loses variety as languages suffer wordy demise

Monica Kiley

Research shows the standardization of languages is looming closer, as nearly 7,000 languages, according to National Geographic, of the world today are disappearing – maybe as close as in your backyard.

According to the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project, a language “dies” in the world every 14 days. A few regions in North America are included in the top five areas with only approximately five people who speak strictly indigenous languages. Oklahoma boasts the highest density of indigenous languages in the United States. The languages in this area include those originally spoken there and languages from tribes that were forced to the area from farther east.

As human history shows, languages of powerful groups have spread while the languages of smaller cultures have become extinct, with the more powerful groups’ official language policies ensuring the extinction, such as the American treatment of American Indian languages. So as mainstream languages spread, such as English and Spanish, children whose parents speak a small, indigenous language often grow up only learning one dominant language. Depending on the attitudes toward the ancestral language, those children or their children may never learn the smaller language, or they may forget it as it falls out of use.

“Language and culture go hand in hand, and languages evolve according to the path of growth of a community,” wrote Viviana Cortes, assistant professor of English and TESL/applied linguistics, in an e-mail.

One of the languages spoken in Oklahoma, known as Yuchi, is not related to any other language. The U.S Government drove the Yuchi from Tennessee in the early 19th century, according to National Geographic. Into the early 20th century, most of the tribe spoke the language fluently. After that, government boarding schools severely punished, by beatings and other punishments, American Indian students heard speaking their own language. Yuchi children then abandoned their parent’s native language for English to avoid punishments.

In 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were fluent in the language. These remaining speakers spoke Yuchi fluently before they went to school and have maintained the language despite strong pressure to abandon it.

“A lot of the pressure to speak a main language is for economic, social and educational reasons,” said Maximilian Viatori, assistant professor of anthropology.

Viatori said there were several reasons why these languages are becoming “extinct.”

“I think some of the reasons these indigenous languages are disappearing is because of political and economic reasons,” Viatori said. “There is a social and economic stigma put on these languages.”

He said these languages bring a different perspective of the world we live in. The status of these languages indicates how much of the world is not readily available to the rest of us.

Much of what humans know about nature is encoded only in oral languages. Indigenous groups that have interacted closely with the natural world for thousands of years often have profound insights into local lands, plants, animals and ecosystems – many still undocumented by science. Studying indigenous languages therefore benefits environmental understanding and conservation efforts.

Cortes holds a different view.

“When a community loses a language, it might lose part of its original identity,” Cortes wrote. “But if the community still exists, then, it will undoubtedly use another language to communicate, incorporating their cultural insight to this language.”