Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, many are at risk of extinction. According to The Endangered Languages Project, 50% of them will be lost by the year 2100 because their last remaining speakers will have either died or chosen to abandon the language in an effort to speak another more widely accepted one.
A leading offender in language loss is oppression. Rather than embrace the diversity different languages bring, many societies force speakers to abandon their native tongue in order to be accepted. Speaking the lingua franca might make it easier for someone to function within a community, but what’s left behind represents a great loss of culture. When we lose a language completely, we lose the unique cultural traditions that went along with it. All of that knowledge and history simply disappear as we move forward to become a singular, giant one-size-fits-all Earth culture.
This is everyone’s problem. When I became interested in endangered languages, I ignorantly pictured their speakers oceans away from the US. I pictured the tribes I’d heard about in my college anthropology course, far removed from civilization. In reality, many of these struggling-language speakers live very close to me. And they’re engaged in a lifelong effort to preserve their linguistic knowledge in the face of more dominantly spoken languages (i.e., English).
There are actually 206 endangered languages in the US alone. Here are just five of them, five that can still be saved.
1. Central Pomo and Kashaya
Background: The Pomo languages are part of the larger Hokan family of languages — once spoken in the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico. There used to be seven different Pomo languages. However, the Gold Rush brought massacre and Native American slavery to the West Coast, causing all but two to be lost.
Remaining speakers: Kashaya is only spoken by “several dozen” people, and Central Pomo fewer than that. Both languages are primarily spoken by elders, who are trying to pass the language down to the younger members of the community.
Example of Central Pomo:
Example of Kashaya:
The National Endowment for the Humanities provides an audio clip of Kashaya speaker Essie Parrish giving an interview in the endangered language here.
Background: Primarily spoken in Caddo County, Oklahoma, near Binger and Anadarko, the language used to have several different dialects. Even with their differences, each dialect was understood by every Caddo member. Today, the Hasinai and Hainai dialects are the predominant ones.
Remaining speakers: Fewer than 25 elderly community members.
Examples: A vocabulary guide with audio examples can be found on the Caddo Nation website.
Background: Originating in southern-central Alaska and Canada, Ahtna is an Athabaskan language. Its tribal population was once spread over eight different communities along the Copper River, but it’s now dwindled to 500.
Remaining speakers: 80, with a mix of both elders and young.
Background: Also known as Nakota or Nakoda, Assiniboine is a Siouan language of the Great Plains, primarily spoken in northern Montana and southern Saskatchewan. It pairs well with two other Siouan dialects in nearby areas: Stoney of southwestern Alberta and Sioux of North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Although these dialects aren’t the same, they can be easily intersected with one another, which has allowed Siouan languages to be passed on.
Remaining speakers: Fewer than 150 with no speakers younger than 40 years old.
Examples: A vocabulary guide, including some picture dictionaries, can be found here.
Background: The Alabaman people used to live primarily in the state to which they gave their name. However, a forced relocation in the early 1800s moved them to East Texas, where they share reservation land with their “traditional allies” the Coushattas. Alabama is one of the six Muskogean languages spoken in the southeastern US.
Remaining speakers: 250 to 300 members of the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation. Most speakers are over the age of 50, and Alabama is the “language of choice” at the local senior citizen center. However, The Endangered Languages Project says there are younger speakers as well, probably in their teens.
Examples: Alabama vocabulary and pronunciation guides can be found here.