‘If Latin’s a dead language, why do I still have to study it?” is something many frustrated students ask themselves when knee-deep in what seems to be an antiquated and outdated language. But Latin is one of the major sources of many Western languages and can help us understand our own language more deeply. There are many dead languages in the world and when they lose their native speakers, we lose a part of that living language history. Many languages also have deep cultural roots that should be honored and valued. And communities are doing just that through language revival.
Language revival is an attempt to reverse the decline of a language or to bring back an extinct one. As the pillar of our communication with one another, language represents so much more than words. For many communities, languages represent a part of their shared culture and history that cannot be replaced. Revitalizing languages is an incredibly important step in preserving unique cultural history around the world.
Ainu Language in Hokkaido, Japan
The Ainu language is a language spoken on the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan. This language is a unique isolate that has no genealogical relationship to any other language family, making it an incredibly valuable language. This language was the language of the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu. It was slowly replaced by Japanese as the Ainu were colonized. There are only about 10 native speakers left in the world and many of them learned the language through folktales and stories they had memorized as children.
The Ainu people were only recently given indigenous rights in Japan, and as such, has only recently come to many linguists attention. Many linguists are now working on revitalizing the Ainu language as a part of the native culture of Hokkaido. Many aspects of Ainu culture are still alive and well, like making clothes and observing prayer traditions.
Language revival is made possible through a small culture of linguists and language lovers in Japan who are striving to bring back Ainu as a natively spoken language. This includes two families who are raising their children bilingually as speakers of both Ainu and Japanese.
Manchu Language in China
Manchu is the language of the ancient Manchurian people, who were semi-nomadic “barbarians” and established the Qing dynasty of China. The Qing dynasty ruled for 268 years and the Manchurian people still make up China’s second largest minority group. Even though there are many ethnic Manchurians, there are not many people left who still understand the language.
There are now fewer than 100 fluent speakers of Manchurian in China, and almost all of them are over 70 years old. This means that the language is one of the world’s most endangered, as many of the people who hold the key to future understand will soon no longer be with us.
Since the advent of the internet, there have been some communities who are striving to rescue this dying language. A forum called Manchu Sky helps Manchu people to connect with each other and share cultural facets and soundbytes of the Manchu language.
Hebrew Language in Europe and Israel
Hebrew is a language that seems to be as old as time itself. It is one of the oldest surviving languages, but its future was not always so bright. In 1881, a young Jewish man and his friends agreed to speak exclusively Hebrew to each other, sparking the revitalization of a language that had not been spoken conversationally since the second century.
That man’s name was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and he went on to be the father of the modern Hebrew language. Though Hebrew was still spoken among some Jewish communities, it was more to help fill in the gaps and identify people of similar cultural backgrounds. Ben-Yehuda went on to write the first Modern Hebrew dictionary and even raised his son as the first true native speaker of Modern Hebrew.
Ben-Yehuda’s efforts, while noble, would not have been enough to revive the language. The communities of the First Aliya and the Second Aliya established the first modern Hebrew schools. These schools helped to establish Hebrew as a language spoken in daily affairs. It finally worked its way through the community and became a systematic and national language.
Today, Hebrew is the official language of the State of Israel and has over 9 million speakers worldwide. 7 million of these speak Hebrew fluently. Many steps are being taken by these native speakers to protect the language from globalization and possibly dying out a second time. Hebrew is a wonderful example of what the determination of a community can do for the revitalization of a language.
Quechua in Peru
Quechua is the language of many of the indigenous people of Latin America, with the highest concentration of speakers in Peru. Though Quechua speakers make up 1/10th of Peru’s population, the language is still endangered. It is widely viewed as an antiquated language of the past, and not as a valuable source of history and culture. Though it has many native speakers, there are not a lot of resources for the continued learning and development of the Quechua language.
Quechua is largely a spoken language, not a written one, which adds to the danger of its decline. There are not many publications available in Quechua, which leaves its native speakers feeling like they are not a part of the modern world while they are speaking Quechua. The language of power and publication is largely Spanish, meaning many young people grow up and do not speak Quechua in their daily life.
There have been champions of the Quechua language that have come forward to promote the preservation and advancement of this language in Peru and elsewhere. The Lt. Mayor of Cusco has moved to advance the use of Quechua in schools and promote Quechua culture. There have been other initiatives established to advance the Quechua language.
Barngarla in Australia
The Barngarla language is one of many indigenous languages in Australia. Recently, a linguist working at the University of Adelaide has gone on a quest to revive this long-sleeping language. Bargara communities today live primarily in rural towns, which makes it a difficult language to revive. Professor Zuckermann has not been deterred by the travel to different rural areas, believing strongly that this is a language that needs to be brought back to life.
The Barngarla people are overjoyed at the efforts to revitalize their language. Though the language has always been there, the active effort to teach new generations of Barngarla is exciting. It has created a sense of shared identity and a stronger tie to their culture. The Barngarla people are excited to be regaining such an important part of their identity, and their journey has begun to pave the way for the revitalization of other Australian indigenous languages.
Hawaiian in Hawaii
Hawaiian is a Polynesian language that suffered many blows after the arrival of European colonists, as it’s speakers experienced widespread discrimination. The language was even, at one point, banned in schools as native speakers were forced to assimilate into European culture. In the 1980s, only a few hundred native speakers remained. This posed a great risk to indigenous Hawaiian culture and a small group of linguists decided to make an effort to preserve this beautiful language.
They did this by establishing preschools called Pūnana Leo (which literally means language nest in Hawaiian). These schools were full immersion Hawaiian language schools that were propped up by the communities who did not want to see their language erased from the new generation.
Luckily, it worked, and now about 2,000 of the 24,000 speakers of Hawaiian are native speakers. This has been followed by the expansion of Hawaiian language classes and a growth of interest in the language. This is great news for the Hawaiian people, who now have effectively saved a very important part of their culture.
Cornish in the United Kingdom
The Cornish language is largely spoken and used in Cornwall, UK. This language began to slowly disappear from the 4th century but was hastened in the 13th century. Finally, the last known person to have full knowledge of traditional Cornish died in 1891. This seemingly marked the end of this ancient language.
However, in the late 19th century there was a resurgence of interest in the language as a result of the Celtic language revival movement. There have been many academics who have worked tirelessly to create handbooks and new versions of a unified version of Cornish. These have progressed from Unified Cornish to a Standard Written form, which is widely accepted today.
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