A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
The Continent of Lost Languages
Imagine yourself among the travelers to North America 500 or more years ago, arriving initially by ship as the earliest European explorers did, but equipped with the trained sensibility of a modern linguist. Exploring the continent while you took meticulous notes along the way might eventually enable you to draw a map like the one below, which shows the distribution of language families at first contact with Europeans.
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The number and variety of languages spoken in North America half a millennium ago is truly astonishing in comparison with today. The ways in which so many of these languages have disappeared is a familiar one around the world, where a colonizing people appears with superior technology that eventually translates into cultural domination and destruction, resulting in the death of languages and cultures. That's a sad story that has been told many times, so let's focus instead on some success stories in native North American languages.
A different map is much more pertinent for illustrating the ways that Native American languages are spoken in the United States today. The map below is based on census data, and shows counties across the country in which there are a significant number of speakers of a native language. It's a very different map from the one above, but offers some hope that the first languages spoken on the continent won't disappear completely.
A recent article in High Country News profiled the life of native languages in the western United States, where about two-thirds of the country's speakers of a native language live. More than sixty languages are still spoken in the Western states alone, though only a dozen of these have more than 2,000 speakers, and the majority have fewer than 300 speakers. Roughly two-thirds of homes where a Native language is spoken are located in only three states: New Mexico, Arizona and Alaska.
Here's a closer look at three languages that are alive, if not entirely well, today. All these languages are represented by some hotspots on the map below: Lakota, Yupik, and Navajo.
The large, irregular bluish patch on the first map, representing the original territory of Siouan languages, has a representative today in Lakota, a collection of dialects spoken by Indians that are variously grouped under the names Dakota, Lakota, and Sioux. You can listen to a sample here, the audio stream of KILI, a radio station that broadcasts from the Pine Ridge reservation in southwest South Dakota. Lakota has about 5,000 speakers today. Contributions from Lakota to English include the iconic Indian word tepee, designating a conical tent, and wahoo, a shrub in the Euonymus genus. The prospects for Lakota are not bright, given the high rates of poverty among its speakers, coupled the lack of any economic incentive to preserve the language.
The outlook is brighter for Yupik (also called Cup'k), a language that is spoken in western Alaska — the state with the highest per capita number of native language speakers in the US. The 5% of Alaskans who speak a Native language divide that fluency among nearly two dozen languages in two major language families — Eskimo–Aleut, which includes Yupik — and Na-Dené. You can hear a sample of Yupik here, if you tune in at the infrequent times of day devoted to Yupik-language programs.
Yupik is also a collection of dialects that do not all enjoy complete mutual intelligibility. All together the dialects have more than 10,000 speakers, including a significant percentage of children in native villages for whom Yupik is a first language. Owing to geographic and climatic remoteness from the contiguous United States, Yupik has made no familiar contributions to English, other than the word Yupik itself, which designates a "genuine" person. But this very isolation is perhaps one factor in favor of the preservation of the language: its speakers live far from the trappings of American civilization and many still enjoy a very traditional, low-technology life.
If you judged by the second map alone, Navajo would be considered the Native American linguistic success story. It has far more native speakers than any other indigenous language, and by some estimates it accounts for nearly half the speakers of all native languages north of the US-Mexico border. Navajo speakers are concentrated in northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, in the counties shaded in dark blue on the second map. These counties, however, are large and sparsely populated, and all of them are partly or wholly within the Navajo reservation, the largest in the United States. Despite the fact that more than a quarter of its residents speak a language other than English at home, Arizona has declared English as its official language and its constitution stipulates that "representatives of government in this state shall preserve, protect and enhance the role of English as the official language of the government of Arizona."
You can stream Navajo radio here, where you will often be treated to the completely unique sound of spoken Navajo, punctuated by the mesmerizing and percussive recordings of Navajo music. But just as often you will hear rather disconcerting public service messages from various US government agencies, along with contemporary American C&W tunes, both of which are part of the cultural diet of the modern Navajo. Even the spoken language has frequent interpolation of English words, reflecting the fact that the native population does exist or function in an atmosphere of undiluted cultural purity.
Many efforts are underway to preserve native languages, although in some cases it is acknowledged that the languages will be preserved mainly as artifacts, not as living languages that stand a chance of attracting or developing fluent speakers. There is, for example, the Endangered Languages Project, a world-wide effort partly funded by Google that keeps tabs on nearly 200 languages of the United States. Smaller efforts are focused on individual languages, mainly through university-based grant funding. One program, Documenting Endangered Languages, is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. Some of its successes are catalogued here. Less optimistically, the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014, which would have authorized funding for the preservation of native languages through 2019, died in the last Congress last year and its sponsor, former Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, did not seek re-election.