Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hold Your Tongue!

According to UNESCO's endangered language database, a large number of threatened or extinct Native American languages are clustered in Oklahoma. It is sad to see this knowledge slipping into oblivion.

The United States, for all its glory, is woefully behind when it compares education to that of other countries, where many students grow up learning two, three, and even four languages. To lose that linguistic legacy, that touchstone to where you come from (assuming, of course, you come from a non-English speaking cultural heritage) is sad in a way. Does it make us rootless, incomplete?

Among those Native American languages listed as extinct in Oklahoma, we find: Chiwere, Arapaho, Kansa, Quapah, and Huron. Though the list doesn't account for geographic longevity, we can assume at least some of these languages existed prior to the forced migrations of various tribes to Indian Territory.

Other native languages, like Pawnee, Osage, and Wichita are listed as "critically endangered". The best rating they give is still labeled "unsafe," and this is bestowed upon the Choctaw.

Of course, UNESCO's gazetteer of languishing linguistics is not solely focused on Oklahoma or even Native American language. The interactive map includes nearly 2,500 langugaes from all over the globe.

For Ireland, a place dear to my heart, UNESCO lists the "definitely endangered" Irish (or, more properly, Gaeilge) and the extinct Yola, a branch of Old English that was allowed to thrive on its own in County Wexford until its gradual extinction by the middle of the 19th century.

Across the sea, Great Britain has lost Traditional Cornish and Manx, as well as the obscure Norn. The latter was a West Scandinavian branch of the North Germanic languages (along with Icelandic and Norwegian) that was spoken on Shetland and Orknery until about 1850. Great Britain's endangered languages include: Scot, Scottish Gaelic, and Jersey French.

In Spain, the threat is to Basque, Aragonese, and Asturian-Leonese. Basque (or, more properly, Euskara) is the last pre-Indo-European language in Europe, Aragonese is a post-Latin dialect that arose in the 8th century, and Asturian-Leonese is another hold-over from Latin that evolved on its own.

If you have an interest in languages, culture, and history, I urge you to check out this fascinating database. Who knows, it might prompt you to learn a second (or third) language. Maybe you will help save a vanishing language. I hear only about 15 septuagenarians speak Aramaic.

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