Loved ones to Covid-19. Homes to forest fires. Clean air to climate change. The past year has stolen much of what sustains us.
But we’re in danger of another devastating loss, just under the surface. And it’s the cultural bedrock on which our lives and identities are constructed: our world's languages.
One fifth of the world’s more than 7,000 languages will be dormant or dead by the end of the century, scientists warn. More than 40% of them are already endangered.
And while it may seem misguided to focus on language loss while the planet is suffering during a pandemic, language is more central to our survival as humans than we might think.
Within languages lie entire worldviews. And the worldviews that are most in danger of extinction could help show the way out of the biggest crises of our time.
Data sourced from SIL International.
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languages will be dormant or dead by the end of the century
Listen to these words in the language of the Potawatomi, a North American indigenous group from the Upper Midwest.
The words and their definitions are voiced by Justin Neely, director of language at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center.
Jibe myewMilky Way
Colonialism and conquest have all but erased many languages
Language is crucial to the survival of a people. Colonial powers knew that.
Centuries of colonialism and conquest have left no part of the world untouched, traumatizing generations of Native communities.
In the late 1800s, colonists established boarding schools in the US to “civilize” and Christianize indigenous communities, stripping native peoples of their identities through forced assimilation and abuse.
A founder of the schools, General Richard C. Pratt, said the system was intended to “kill the Indian and save the man.”
Students receive English language lessons in 1901 at the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Credit: Photo12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Native children were abducted from their homes to attend the schools, where they were forced to worship as Christians and speak English. Thousands of them died, whether by beatings, medical neglect or malnutrition.
Some survivors reported they never spoke their native language again after attending the boarding schools, which persisted through the mid-1900s.
And while the boarding school system in the US was notoriously brutal, it was not the only one.
Boarding schools all over the world, both government- and missionary-run, varied in practice and intention. But most sought to dominate native cultures through language.
Sami children and their teacher at a boarding school in 1933 in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. Credit: ullstein bild/Getty Images
In the Peruvian Amazon in the 1950s, “pacification” attempts by missionaries forced native Arakmbut peoples to attend faraway mission schools and learn Spanish.
In Sápmi, northern parts of what are now known as Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, native Sami peoples were sent to boarding schools from the 19th century through the mid 20th century. Norway and Sweden both passed laws prohibiting the use of Sami language in schools and at home.
Schools and other forced assimilation efforts had a similar effect on the Maori people of Aotearoa, now known as New Zealand. In 1900, 90% of Maori children could speak Maori; by 1960, only 26% could.
This North American language has less than 10 native speakers
The Potawatomi people, spanning the Great Plains, upper Mississippi River and western Great Lakes region, still carry their ancestors’ suffering. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 expelled the Potawatomi from their homelands, forcing them to march from northern Indiana to a reserve in what is now Kansas.
Because of such removal processes, there are now seven unique bands of Potawatomi people across five US states, including several in Canada. Potawatomi people were forced, like other Native groups, to attend brutal assimilation boarding schools.
“It has a residual effect,” Justin Neely, director of language at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center, told CNN. “A post-traumatic type of feeling that went down the bloodline.”
Lyle Simmons, left, and Justin Neely dance at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation powwow grounds in Shawnee, Oklahoma on June 29, 2019. Credit: Courtesy Garett Fisbeck/Citizen Potawatomi Nation
While there are more than 56,000 Potawatomi people living today, Neely says less than 10 people in the world speak the language natively.
Only around 30, he says, have achieved conversational fluency. He is one of them.
“We’re in a crisis moment for language and for our way of life,” he said. “Language is the key to understanding our culture … Our history, our dance, our ceremonies, our food -- that makes us Potawatomi -- but the language is what ties it all together.”
And the language is more irreplicable than some may think.
When Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, began learning her language 20 years ago, she thought she would just be learning vocabulary. But she discovered the language held a way of viewing the world that directly contradicted the world constructed by English.
Sgt. Chris Berry learns the Potawatomi language on March 26, 2021, at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Credit: Courtesy Garett Fisbeck/Citizen Potawatomi Nation
“Our language is verb-based instead of noun-based -- and every verb is either animate or inanimate,” said Kimmerer, a plant ecologist, writer and professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “The example that I use a lot, because it was so revealing to me, is that our verb for ‘hearing’ is a different verb if you hear a birdsong than if you hear an airplane go by.”
A Potawatomi prescription stick on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. The stick records the botanical and medical knowledge lost to the Potawatomi when they were forced to move to the eastern Plains. Credit: Paul Morigi/AP for The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian
As Kimmerer learned, Potawatomi contains a structure that differs from English in its denial of human exceptionalism. While English separates humans and things by pronouns – he/she/they or “it” – Potawatomi is more concerned with what is living and what is not. And all living things, human or not, are offered equal grammatical value.
“In English, you and I would never refer to each other as ‘it’ -- but we feel free to call trees ‘it,’ and flowers and insects ‘it,’ Kimmerer said. “The ‘it-ing’ of the world that English does … is a kind of permission for an exploitative economy. When we call them it, we set them outside our circle of responsibility.”
A group portrait of Potawatomi people at Rush Lake Mission in southern Michigan in 1906. Credit: T.R. Hamilton/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
The Potawatomi language, in its most foundational grammar, offers a worldview that brushes up against most modern values. Kimmerer says the lessons embedded in this worldview, especially in a time of pandemic and climate crisis, are the “medicine we need right now.”
“Inherent in the language is this respect for the living world and one another,” she said. “Therein, I think, lies so much of its power. It’s a language that helps us cultivate compassion.”
Covid-19 has taken a toll on native elders and their languages
Neely said that since the pandemic broke out, the already tenuous number of native Potawatomi speakers has dwindled even further. He estimates there are maybe five native speakers left in the world.
Their advanced ages have made them more susceptible to severe complications and death from the virus.
Wilhelm Meya, CEO of the Language Conservancy, an organization that provides language revitalization support to indigenous communities, has recognized the impacts of Covid-19 on his work.
Members of the Crow people record words as a way of preserving their language in 2018 at Little Big Horn College on the Crow Indian Reservation in Crow Agency, Montana. Credit: Courtesy The Language Conservancy
The Language Conservancy recruits indigenous elders to document endangered languages by writing dictionaries. Using accelerated methods, Meya said the organization has pared down the dictionary writing process from 20 years to under a year.
But even a year is hard to afford when a pandemic has ravaged the communities these dictionaries depend on.
“Before the pandemic we thought maybe we had five or 10 years to work on a language,” said Meya, who also is chairman of the Lakota Language Consortium. “Now, some languages where we've lost the majority of the speakers, we might only have one or two years left.”
In 2014, the Lakota Language Consortium partnered with native speakers to produce a cartoon series of the “Berenstain Bears” in the Lakota language, giving the tribe’s children a new opportunity for exposure to their language.
Meya said that one third of the cast members involved in the project have passed away due to Covid-19.
“Some of the communities we work with, we've lost 30 or 40 of the speakers,” he said. “It’s been devastating to these communities and has accelerated the demise of these languages.”
Noék meshomsenanekSeven grandfathers
Mno bmadzewenGood life or Good health
But some groups, led by a prophecy, are fighting back
Despite a year of unimaginable loss, efforts to save the world’s most endangered languages persist. They have to. Not only for the long-term survival of these cultures, but for more urgent reasons.
Historical trauma, seeded through forced relocation, abusive boarding schools and assimilation policies has plagued native communities for generations. And this trauma is a risk factor for suicide. Between 1999 and 2017, the US suicide rate went up 33%. In the same time span, the suicide rate for American Indian and Alaska native men went up 71%. For native women it rose by 139%.
Research suggests that a sense of belonging to culture and community is one of the strongest protective factors against suicidal behavior in native youth – the demographic with the highest suicide rates in the community. Native language learning and use can help facilitate this sense of belonging.
Studies have also shown that native language and culture curriculums in schools improve academic achievement and retention rates.
Ragan Marsee teaches the Potawatomi language to a class in November 2020 at Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Child Development Center in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Credit: Courtesy Garett Fisbeck/Citizen Potawatomi Nation
To reach young people, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center has created Potawatomi language courses, a Potawatomi dictionary and two YouTube channels. A member of the Nation even started a TikTok account.
Meya and the Language Conservancy also have worked with 32 languages across the US, Canada and Australia to create dictionaries, children’s books and language apps.
Still, Neely said much more is needed to help endangered languages thrive again.
Two initiatives that could really swing the pendulum, he said, are native language immersion schools and the translation of more relevant media into native languages.
Kaya DeerInWater, a garden manager for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, leads a nature walk in March 2019 in Oklahoma. Credit: Courtesy Garett Fisbeck/Citizen Potawatomi Nation
“Our kids look and say, ‘How is Potawatomi beneficial to me?’ They flip on the TV and hear English,” he said. “I want video games in my language. I want to be able to hit Google Translate and translate the entire page into Potawatomi.”
Initiatives like these might turn the tides for endangered languages, but they require something important: the willingness of non-indigenous people to heed native voices and worldviews.
There is a prophecy among indigenous tribes called the Seven Fires, or the Seventh Generation, that calls for this. It recounts, in seven installments, native history and what indigenous people have had to endure under European colonization.
The seventh fire, or generation, speaks of a time when indigenous peoples, culture and language experience revival and healing.
Noék shkoden niganyajmowenSeven Fires prophecy
Today, many believe the seventh generation is now.
But it’s not only a time of hope – it’s a time of choice.
“The dominant culture will be shown the way, but still has to choose to walk that path,” Neely said. “If the dominant culture chooses correctly … this fire will light an eighth fire of generosity and compassion. If not, this may in fact signal the beginning of the end. For we as Potawatomi people are told that if our language dies, then the world dies.”
Noék ShkodeSeven Fires song