Reclaiming Endangered Languages

When language death means culture death

by Tatiana Dubin

Illustration by Nana Qi

published September 30, 2016

Spanish missionaries were the first Westerners to begin documenting the indigenous languages of the ‘Viceroyalty of New Spain.’ Travelling to newly conquered lands, missionaries realized that translating the Bible into the languages of target communities was an effective way to spread Christianity. These missionaries eventually Christianized large swaths of South America as they wrote some of the first modern books describing the syntax of the languages they encountered. By the 18th century, the better the linguist, the better the missionary. But these missionaries were by no means proponents of indigenous language preservation—native children were forcefully sent to mission boarding schools, forbidden from speaking their language.

Today, the most powerful player in language documentation is an US-based evangelical organization, SIL International (originally known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.), which boasts of having translated the Bible into over 700 languages. While making strides in language documentation, SIL has been accused of colluding with both US oil companies and the CIA. In 1986, the Mexican government cancelled its relationship with SIL amid concerns that the linguist-missionaries were exacerbating the problem of cultural extinction, especially via their practice of relocating communities to ‘mission’ towns and discouraging indigenous language use.

A stigma continues to surround indigenous language use, and calls by foreign academics to save these languages from extinction rings suspicious to some native ears. In her article, “Language Endangerment in Amazonia: the role of missionaries,” linguist Patience L. Epps quotes a Tukano man, from the northwestern Amazon: “First the Whites come and tell us we must give it all up; then they come and reproach us for having let it go!” 




According to UNESCO, half of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of the century. Over 6,000 languages are currently in use, but the vast majority of these languages are spoken by just 4% of the global population. The world’s linguistic diversity lies in very small, indigenous communities, whose native languages are frequently seen by governmental forces as barriers to integration. For example, in Turkey, it is illegal for Kurds to teach their native language to the next generation. Up until the Native American Languages Act in 1990, similar policies were enacted across the United States. For close to a century, native children were barred from speaking their languages by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

With pressure from advocacy groups like UNESCO’s Endangered Language Program, legally sanctioned language discrimination is on the decline worldwide—but the effects of these policies are long lasting. In a 2015 interview on Public Radio International, Peruvian teenager Renata Flores addressed Quechua, an indigenous language family spoken throughout the Andes region. “Quechua equals poverty,” she said. In 2015, Flores—who is credited with partly reducing the stigma associated with indigenous language use— founded a campaign called “Young people speak Quechua too,” in which Flores performs contemporary pop songs in Quechua. In her most popular video, Flores sings Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” against a backdrop of Incan ruins.

Language death is nothing new—one oft-cited historical example is Etruscan, which was superseded by Latin in the 1st century CE. Due to increased rates of migration and urbanization, the rate of language extinction has never been higher than it is now. Yet efforts to document endangered languages have inspired criticism in recent years, such as by Robert Moore in his 2006 essay “Disappearing, Inc.: Glimpsing the sublime in the politics of access to endangered languages.” In this essay, Moore likens linguists working with endangered languages to “tourists of the mind” and claims that the process of language documentation usually disregards the wishes and goals of the language speakers themselves.

In the past decade, the field of language documentation has responded to this criticism, and contemporary linguists emphasize the need for long-term partnerships with communities in which speakers of endangered languages decide how and to what extent they want to preserve their language. Meanwhile, many speakers have chosen to prioritize their oral cultures, including poetry, music, and historical narratives. A small but growing movement to preserve art forms expressed in endangered languages is widening the appeal of endangered language preservation.




An estimated 800 different languages are spoken in New York City, the most linguistically diverse city in the world. Daniel Kaufman, an associate professor of linguistics at Queens College, identified a strange disconnect amid this linguistic richness—why weren’t endangered language activists reaching out to these speakers? While linguists often rely on expensive grants funding travel and accommodations to hard-to-reach areas, NYC contains a trove of accessible endangered language data. According to Kaufman’s website, he founded the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) in 2014 “with the purpose of initiating long-term language projects in cooperation with immigrant communities in NYC and local linguistics students.” But his organization goes beyond documentation. ELA also uses art and culture to encourage endangered language awareness and preservation through its ongoing performance series Unheard Of!.

Hosted in the East Village’s Bowery Poetry venue, Unheard Of! features individual artists working in their native, endangered tongues, as well as groups performing traditional dance and song. Each event begins by giving the social and linguistic context necessary to understanding the upcoming performance and is centered around a particular geographic location—most recently Mexico. In addition to interviews, lectures, readings, and jokes, the Mexico event featured poetry in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. During the event, Nahuatl teacher and activist Irwin Sanchez read two poems in Nahuatl. 

According to 19th-century anthropologist Daniel Garrison Brinton, the Nahua made no distinction between poetry and song (both are named cuicatl). Nahua culture is also known for its extended list of cuicatl genres, for example: xochicuicatl (literally: flower-song, used only to praise flowers), and xopancuicatl (literally: song-of-the-spring, used in reference to the beginning of events). “Nahuatl is a metaphorical language,” explained Sanchez in a 2012 article on Voices of NY. For an endangered language, Nahuatl has an unusually high number of speakers, estimated around 1.5 million, but it is considered ‘endangered’ because it will likely fall out of use in coming generations. 




Reading through statistics about language extinction, one might feel an urgent impulse to archive as much as possible. This archival impulse motivates many western attempts to fossilize indigenous cultures. A grim binary is underway: archive or extinction. But City Lore, another NYC-based organization, has a more nuanced alternative.

Founded in 1986, City Lore believes in the principle of cultural democracy, defined on their website as: “a society which allows many cultural traditions to coexist on an equal footing.” Like the ELA, City Lore focuses on minority cultures within New York City. But rather than centering its mission around endangered language preservation, the organization focuses on the proliferation and expansion of New York’s endangered language culture. City Lore’s perspective is notably more romantic than that of ELA as their cultural goals allow for a level of artistic depth rarely seen in linguistics-oriented organizations.

City Lore was inspired to start its Endangered Poetry Initiative after its seven-year involvement with the People’s Poetry Gathering, a biennial festival aiming to push the traditional boundaries of poetry. In 2006, the People’s Poetry Gathering centered its festival on endangered language poetry, featuring the Alaskan Tlingit poet Nora Marks Dauenhauer who also transcribes and translates Tlingit oral literature. In a poem titled “Listening for Native Voices,” written in 1984, Dauenhauer makes a case for listening to native writers:


     Trapped voices,


     under sea ice of English,


     surging to be heard.

     We say

     ‘Listen for sounds.

     They are as important

     as voices.’






Soon after the 2006 festival, City Lore decided that endangered language poetry needed to be showcased and celebrated more than every two years. City Lore’s Endangered Poetry Initiative is born of festival ashes, self-described as: “a long term project to feature, disseminate, and document poetry in endangered languages to help assure these distinct visions will not be lost upon the world.”

Like ELA, The Endangered Poetry Initiative hosts events at the Bowery Poetry venue. In addition, the Endangered Poetry Initiative sponsors the translation of Somali and Georgian poetry, and helped fund fieldwork on a Kuranko-language epic from Sierra Leone called Finah Misa Kule. And, as a testament to their commitment, the Endangered Poetry Initiative published a ‘Declaration of Poetic Rights and Values,’ whose first two lines serve as tribute to an ever-important, yet ever-forgotten, cause: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all languages are created equal, endowed by their creators with certain inalienable meanings. These meanings are embedded in sounds and texts; in words, imagination, and the poems that bind them.”


TATIANA DUBIN B’18.5 thinks we should listen closer.