One of the more tragic linguistic issues – minority language loss – seems to be all about doom and gloom as we scramble frantically to put together audio dictionaries, interviews with last speakers, spread awareness and write more and more bleeding heart blog entries about why these dying languages and the cultures they embody are important to the world.
But not all news coming out of the language revitalization and documentation communities is bad. While it’s true that the vast majority of world languages are endangered and going extinct at a devastating rate, rarely do we stop to focus on the success stories that some languages have had.
Here are a few of the more successful minority languages that have been revitalized, or in some cases brought back from the dead entirely.
An inspirational tale of one Native American language that managed to find life at the very brink of extinction, Yurok, a member of the Algic language family native to the Northern California coastal area is being heralded as one of the strongest success stories among indigenous language preservation effforts in California.
A few years ago Yurok had only six living speakers but through a series of programs – particularly high school and elementary school Yurok language programs – the count has rebounded to over 60 (though some of them are still only at intermediate proficiency.)
Reconstructed lankhouse typical of the Yurok nation in Redwood National Park (Wikipedia)
Though small, the language program remains strong as children, native and non-native alike continue to push this language back from the edge.
In the early 90s linguists predicted that Yurok would be gone entirely by 2010, but through the resolve of the tribal elders the language has endured and promises to continue to grow.
The revival of Cornish is a testament to the resolve of the Cornish people and their pursuit of cultural identity. Cornish, or Kernoweck, is a Celtic language native to the Cornwall region of England.
If you thought Yurok was doing well for itself, Cornish actually became more or less extinct well over 100 years ago. The language has slowly crept back into daylight over the course of the past century with huge leaps and bounds being made in the past couple decades.
Today there are over 550 speakers of Cornish following the intense interest in its revival. There is actually a handful of individuals that can now claim to be native speakers.
Cornish language street sign (Photo credit: Paul Stainthorp)
A number of factors are responsible for the booming success of this language, not the least of which is the Cornish peoples’ will to preserve their language and identity.
Cornish is experiencing a strong internet presence, small local film and radio industries a enjoys official recognition as a living language by Great Britain.
Some folks are even reported to desire autonomy from England in much the same way as Wales, and foresee for Cornwall a similar linguistic circumstance in which Cornish – like Welsh – is compulsory in schools. Whether this will likely come to pass has yet to be seen but it would appear improbable for the time being.
Another exciting example of a language resurrected, Wompanoag,or Wôpanâak, again showcases a language extinct for over 100 years returning to its people.Wôpanâak is another Native American language, this time from the East coast in Massachusetts.
Wompanoag can claim over 400 speakers, almost all of them L2 speakers. However a tiny portion of this population are children who can claim to be the first generation of native speakers in over a century.
The revitalization of the Wompanoag language is being heralded by some as the first case in which an extinct language has been successfully revitalized in the United States.
Wompanoag enjoys some small presence in Massachusetts schools but has also benefits from private classes and short immersion camps via organizations such as The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.
When German missionaries Christian Teichelmann and Clamor Schurmann documented the Australian Aboriginal language Kaurna in the mid 19th centurty they paved the way for the language’s reclamation over one hundred years later.
The last native speaker of Kaurna died in the early 1930s but the language has experienced a resurgence thanks to the efforts of the speakers’ descendants and the University of Adelaide – a university often strongly involved with aboriginal language documentation and restoration projects.
Approximate extent of the traditional territory of the Kaurna people. Based on the description given by Robert Amery in Warrabarna Kaurna!: reclaiming an Australian language. (Wikipedia)
Using Teichelmann and Schurmann’s dictionary, contemporary learners have managed to piece together over 3500 Kaurna words that make up this Revived Kaurna.
The speaker count for the language is unknown due to the fragmented nature of the Kaurna ethnicity and the way in which it sprawled across Adelaide without any significant community to call its own and owing to the exclusive use of English among Kaurna.
While there are thousands of ethnic Kaurna people, the actual speaker count remains quite low.
But any time you’re going from an extinct language to a language with speakers your revitalization efforts can be called a success.
Through various high school and university courses in this language, indigenous language songs, as well as some of the other local aboriginal languages, the language is managing to make a come back and appears to have a much brighter future than many other native Australian tongues.
Māori statue in Rotorua, New Zealand ( Wikipedia)
Maori has the honor of being one of the most successful stories of language revitalization.
With over 60,000 speakers – a number that is actually growing – Maori isn’t even classified as endangered. While technically still “vulnerable” things are looking good for the Polynesian language native to New Zealand.
Maori enjoys a lot of legal protection and as one of the three official languages of New Zealand (along with NZ Sign Language and English) is represented quite well on the island nation appearing on building names, administrations, businesses and other signage along side English
In fact the language’s presence is so strong that Maori interpreters are readily available at all parliamentary sessions or other high level government affair should a speaker choose to use Maori.
Part of the Maori success story can be attributed to strong movements such as Kohanga Reo, a project put into effect in the 80s that provides immersion environments from infancy through early childhood.
Projects like these are all part of the much larger Maori Renaissance, a movement that has restored the Maori culture from being “just another dying native culture” into a powerful, up and coming society with equal rights and representation among citizens of European lineage.
The alleged longest place name in the world in Maori.
It is stories like these that give hope to the people fighting to retain their cultural identities and the scientists and language enthusiasts who support them. While it is true that combating language extinction is truly an uphill battle that can never really be ‘won’, not every story ends tragically for those looking to preserve their heritage.
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