Sociolinguistics: Part 9

This week, we will continue our discussion on language death.

So far, we have addressed the many ways language can die: the death of populations of speakers, and -- if they are still alive -- the death of their linguistic self worth. When the elders are the last speakers of a language and they don’t pass it down, that language dies. This might not be what the elders want, but it’s what they choose in order to help their descendants better adapt to a modernizing world. It’s kind of like a linguistic natural selection: those who are able to speak globalized languages are able to fare better in the global society, which gives them a better chance at living and becoming involved globally. However, these elders know what their young stand to lose by letting go of their mother tongue. The young, then, know what the loss of a cultural identity feels like: their own heritage becomes foreign.

This week, though, we are talking about the revival of dead languages.

The previously mentioned boy prodigy who learned the Selk’nam language is a boy named Keyuk. Keyuk took his love of books to studying this language, reading old archives and examining the grammar and lexicon of Selk’nam. He made a name for himself in the linguistics world, and many were drawn to him with suspicion and curiosity. How could anyone confirm whether or not he was speaking the language correctly if there was no other living speaker?

Keyuk was said to be the only living speaker of Selk'nam. There may have been other people who understood and spoke the language in the past, but they might have stopped speaking it because everyone else did. So, Keyuk set out to find other speakers of Selk'nam. He and another researcher set out to interview Selknam tribe survivors. They were all elders who had given up speaking the language, but still treasured their identity.

One woman, Herminia Vera, had not spoken Selk'nam in eighty years. Like Keyuk's mom, Vera had spoken Selk'nam as a child. Due to the teasing from others for her culture, she stopped speaking the language of her childhood. As she began to converse with Keyuk, though, the languages and memories came flooding back. Now, at an old age, Vera was able to connect with this part of her identity that her native tongue had kept hidden all these years.

It must have been a sign from the Powers That Be for Keyuk to have found this woman when he did, because she passed away just two months after their encounter.

Keyuk is not alone in his efforts to revive languages. There are countless Native American tribe members working to bring back their mother tongues. There are even more people -- from researchers to the daily avid linguistics fan -- who want to help in any way they can.

But more on that next time. Stay tuned!

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