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In 2009 the Ethnologue (Lewis, 2009) catalogued 6,909 still spoken human languages. It reports 389 of these languages account for 94% of the world's population and the remaining 94% of languages are spoken by only 6% of the world's people. The National Geographic Society's Enduring Voices Project predicts that half of these languages may no longer be spoken by the year 2100 as they are replaced by various national languages used by the mass media of the countries the speakers live in. Today the different dialects of Chinese are spoken by 1.2 billion people, Spanish by 329 million, and English by 328 million while various dialects of Arabic are spoken by 221 million people. However, for many indigenous languages there are only a few hundred or less speakers. These figures from the Ethnologue of course are only estimates, and both linguists and speakers do not always agree on what constitutes two dialects of the same language or are actually two different languages. Linguists are still learning about languages spoken in remote areas of the world, and according to the National Geographic Society, every 14 days another language becomes a "sleeping language" as its last surviving speaker dies.
In a sense, all languages of the world are indigenous languages except for a few artificial languages intentionally created, including Esperanto created by L.L. Zamenhof in a quest for a world language not tied to any one country and Klingon spoken by a few fans of the Star Trek movie and television series. All natural languages are rooted in the land and people of particular places at some time in history though some have spread across the world map while most remain tethered to small, usually isolated, communities. Military conquest is a major reason for language spread. During the colonial period conquering nations often enforced the use of their national language in the education of indigenous children and banned the use of indigenous languages. However today language loss is accelerating because of the breakdown of isolation resulting from more rapid means of transportation and the flood of radio, movies, television, and other mass media drowning out the voices of indigenous peoples. In addition, many employers require that the people they hire speak a national or often even a world language such as English, Spanish, or Chinese.
Languages are studied by linguists who are still learning more about how languages work and how they differ as they study more and more of the world's languages. All these languages are complex and sophisticated despite what many politicians and other non-linguists say about them. Humans can produce a wide variety of sounds, but any given language uses just some of these sounds and in different ways. Some languages use tone or pitch to distinguish either word or grammatical meaning-that is, to distinguish or inflect words. All languages can use pitch for emphasis or other reasons, but tonal languages, of which Chinese is the most widely spoken, has words that are differentiated solely by tone. There are also American Indian languages, such as Navajo, that are tonal and use a writing system that notes high tones. Languages, including French and Navajo, have nasal vowels that often sound to English speakers like a half-pronounced "n" is at the end of the vowel. German and Navajo both use glottal stops in their word pronunciation. In East Africa and a few other places there are so called "click" languages whose speakers use a variety of clicking sounds to express their thoughts as was featured in the popular 1980 movie The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Linguist Noam Chomsky theorized and most linguists accept today that the human brain is wired from birth to learn to speak and understand a language, any language the child is exposed to for any length of time. Language is arbitrary; it is only agreed about meanings that make language understandable within a group, and over time these meanings change to fit new situations. Linguists can also document these changes in regard to written languages. For example, English evolved from Chaucer's time, to Shakespeare's time, to today with pronunciations changing and new words being added or changing in meaning. For example, if an English person was talking about "corn" before the sixteenth century they were talking about wheat, but when European explorers discovered a new plant in the "New World," maize, they used the old word "corn" to describe it. Since the twentieth century rapidly evolving technology calls for either creating whole new words or creating new meanings for old words. In their effort to keep their language alive, activists in HawaiÊ»i have formed a language committee to coin new words so that Hawaiian can remain a living vital language that can be used to teach about science, technology, and all the other subjects taught in schools.
Chomsky also theorized there was an underlying commonality to the grammar of languages that could be discovered. However, as linguists analyze more and more of the world's very diverse languages it is becoming harder and harder to find any deep structural similarity. That is not to say that almost all languages cannot be grouped into families and subfamilies, groups of related languages that share some common characteristics such as vocabulary, syntax and ancestry. Languages develop from isolation. When a group of people speaking a language split up and lose contact with one another, then over time the subgroups develop dialects of the original language and eventually new languages that over the centuries become mutually unintelligible. This can be seen with "linked languages" in Australia where Aboriginals spread out over a thousand miles can speak with their neighbors but the groups at the two endpoints of the spread cannot understand each other. After several thousand years of separation, not only do these descendent languages become very different, but also it becomes very hard for linguists to find any commonalities between them. Linguists estimate how long ago these separations occurred by the amount of difference between languages. However, because some groups are more readily borrow words from their neighbors' languages than others, it is difficult to date these hypothesized separations. A few language isolates, such as Basque in Spain and Zuni in the United States, defy grouping into any family of languages. There have been attempts to link some American Indian languages, including Zuni, to European and Asian languages, including Welsh and Japanese, however most linguists find these claims lack adequate evidence.
Languages appeared in human history long before writing systems were developed that could encode what speakers of those languages said, and some languages today remain without writing systems though the organization SIL International headquartered in Dallas, Texas, that wants to translate the Christian bible into all the languages of the world is working to develop orthographies for all of them. Chinese, Sanskrit, and Hebrew have some of the earliest writing systems, and like the languages themselves these writing systems vary widely. Chinese was originally written with symbols that stood for different words though there are also hints at pronunciation in these symbols today. The Japanese, with a very different language from Chinese, were able to adapt the Chinese logographs to their own language, though today they also have two other writing systems they can use. Alphabetic writing systems were developed in the middle-east where different symbols/letters stood for different sounds.
Writing systems for the world's most spoken languages developed over time and often seem to make writing and reading them unnecessarily difficult with the same sound or sounds spelled different ways or the same spelling pronounced different in different words. For example, in English to, too and two or using the same spelling of the verb "read" for both its past and present tense, which are pronounced differently. This makes learning to read the English language much more difficult than if it has a writing system with a one-to-one sound symbol relationship. There are a few cases where indigenous peoples in relatively modern times developed their own writing system for their language, including the syllabary developed by Sequoyah for the Cherokee language. But for most unwritten indigenous languages today, linguists help develop the writing system and work to have a one-to-one sound symbol relationship, which vastly simplifies learning to read the language if one speaks it.
Most indigenous languages have historically lacked writing systems, though the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Epi-Olmecs and Mayans in Central America had hieroglyphic writing systems, as did the Egyptians in Africa. Christian missionaries developed writing systems in many languages worldwide, mostly in order to translate Christian texts. One example is John Eliot's Indian Bible printed at Harvard University in1663. Others missionaries produced dictionaries that are still useful today, such as Stephen Riggs' 1852 Grammar and Dictionary of the Dakota Language and the Catholic Franciscan Fathers' 1919 An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language. In contrast many colonial schools had policies that punished students for speaking their indigenous languages, helping lead to their decline.
The Languages of the World
The Ethnologue lists 2,110 languages spoken in Africa, 993 in the Americas, 2,322 in Asia, 234 in Europe, and 1,240 in the Pacific. It is in Africa, where scientists find evidence of the earliest humans, that there is the most linguistic diversity, which makes sense because it is where languages have had the longest time to diverge from one or more of the most ancient ancestral languages. One African country, Nigeria has 521 different languages representing most of the African language families.
The languages of Australia, Indonesia, and the many other islands in the Pacific Ocean, compromising what is called Oceania, provide a good example of how the people who colonized different islands developed unique languages over time so that today there are some 1,200 languages in the area. The Austronesian language family represents a quarter of the world's languages. Seafarers some six thousand years ago spread out over the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Papua New Guinea alone has some 830 languages.
In Asia, the Sino-Tibetan language family includes the various Chinese dialects. Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language of the world. However, the largest language family is Indo-European with over 2.7 billion speakers living in the Indian sub-continent and across Europe. Hindi, an Indo-European language of India, is a descendent of Sanskrit in which Hindu and Buddhist religious books were written. Sanskrit has been compared to Latin and vice versa in terms of its influence on later languages that share descent from it. The origin of Indo-European languages is believe to be located somewhere in Eastern Europe and its daughter languages moved eastward into India and westward as far as the British Isles and in more recent times to the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Its descendents include Latin and the various Romance languages as well as Germanic, Slavic, Uralic, and Celtic languages. Old English dates back seven centuries and earlier to Germanic languages, while Black English only dates back to the importation of African slaves to the new world. English is one language that has borrowed words from hundreds of languages, including many American Indian languages, especially the names of animals, plants, and places that were new to Europeans.
In the Americas, linguists estimate that nearly a thousand languages, which can be classified as members of over a hundred language families, were spoken when Europeans colonists first arrived. James Estes (1999) listed 154 indigenous American languages still spoken in the United States, representing several different language families, with Navajo having over a hundred thousand speakers and seven languages with only one speaker. In Canada the Ethnologue estimates Cree has 80,550 first language speakers, and in Mexico, Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, has over a million speakers in Mexico. The various dialects of Quechua, the language of the Incas, still have millions of speakers in Peru, Bolivia, Equator and other South American countries. The vast differences among American Indian language families indicate the speakers have lived in the Americas for many thousands of years.
Language, Culture, and Meaning
One of the interesting aspects of language studied by linguists and anthropologist is the tie between language and culture. Some indigenous people feel their culture will die if their language dies. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf gives some support to this view and recent linguistic studies show that different languages structure the world differently. In English people can say something is to their left or right, but in some Australian aboriginal languages everything is determined by direction. Things are either to the west, east, north, or south of the speaker. Sean O'Neill's 2008 study of the Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk languages in northern California finds that despite the fact that these three groups who live adjacent to each other spoke languages from very different language families, their cultures were quite similar based on the environment they lived in.
Many indigenous people see their language as embodying their culture. This point of view was expressed by a Cheyenne elder who said, "Cheyennes who are coming toward us are being denied by us the right to acquire that central aspect of what it means to be Cheyenne because we are not teaching them to talk Cheyenne. When they reach us, when they are born, they are going to be relegated to being mere husks, empty shells. They are going to look Cheyenne, have Cheyenne parents but they won't have the language which is going to make them truly Cheyenne" (as quoted in Reyhner, 1997, vii)
Linguist Sally Midgette (1997) uses as an example the Navajo word hózhó to show that it can be difficult to translate concepts from one language to another. It can mean peace, harmony, and beauty in English. It is not just the meaning of words that makes translation difficult. English uses verbs to mark whether something happened in the past, present, or future, but that is not true about many other languages, even though those languages can certainly distinguish when an action occurred. An Athabascan language, such as Navajo, use different verbs to show whether an action is instantaneous, repeated, or takes a long time. Unlike English, which is an analytic language, Navajo is a polysynthetic language In analytic languages sentences are made up of relatively short and simple words; polysynthetic language uses very complex words, with roots, prefixes and suffixes occurring in a definite order. It is possible to translate a whole sentence in English into one polysynthetic word. Midgette gives is an example of the Navajo word naa'ahélgo' that can translate as "I pushed them and made them fall over one after another." Languages such as Navajo incorporate nouns into verbs, such as "we are going berry-picking" (verb) whereas in English it would usually be "We are going to pick berries" (verb plus noun). Different languages also vary word order, whereas English goes subject, verb, object, some languages of the Amazon basin have an object, verb, subject word order.
Language Policies and Language Rights
Many indigenous people today are working to reverse the language loss caused by colonial education polices and current efforts in many countries to promote national unity through the privileging of a national language. They view many of the social problems they face today on the effects of losing their indigenous languages and cultures. As fewer and fewer children speak indigenous language, a generation gap is created where the child speaks only a "world" language such English, the parents are bilingual, and the grandparents only speak the indigenous language, creating a generation gap that inhibits cultural transmission and often causes serious social dislocation, leading to high rates of suicide and drug, alcohol, and spousal abuse. In response, efforts are being made across the world to protect and revitalize indigenous languages. For example, in the 1980s several American Indian nations passed language policies that supported teaching their languages in schools, and in 1990 they were able to get the U.S. Congress to pass the Native American Languages Act that made it U.S. policy to "preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages." Navajo Tribal Chairman Peterson Zah wrote in 1984, "We believe that an excellent education can produce achievement in the basic academic skills and skills required by modern technology and still educate young Navajo citizens in their language, history, government and culture" (as quoted in Reyhner & Eder, 2004, 310). In 1986 Hawaiian language activists were able to get the 1896 state law barring the use of their language in schools repealed.
University of California linguist Leanne Hinton, talks about the personal benefits of indigenous language revitalization efforts that help the generations together and make the elders feel valued. Linguist Sally Midgette (1997, 39) writes, "I have heard several Native Americans speak feeling about their sense of rootlessness and despair, and how they recovered when their grandmothers taught them to speak Tolowa, or Navajo, and they regained a sense of themselves and their heritage." Evangeline Parsons Yazzie concluded from interviews, "Elder Navajos want to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to the younger generation. Originally, this was the older people's responsibility. Today the younger generation does not know the language and is unable to accept the words of wisdom." Yazzie concluded, "The use of the native tongue is like therapy, specific native words express love and caring Knowing the language presents one with a strong self-identity, a culture with which to identify, and a sense of wellness" (as quoted in Reyhner, 1997, vi). Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College, concluded that his Northern Cheyenne language could be an antidote to the forces pulling the youth of his tribe into joining gangs. Traditionally indigenous peoples often see their languages as sacred gifts from the Creator. They can also be seen as a path to wellness as traditional values are recovered. Dull Knife Tribal College president Richard Littlebear wrote, "I see our native languages nurturing our spirits and hearts and the English language as sustenance for our bodies" (1990, 8).
The MÄori in New Zealand and Native Hawaiians have been among the most successful groups revitalizing their languages. Both have pre-kindergarten to higher education indigenous educational programs available that teach in their languages.
The United Nations (UN) has been in the forefront of promoting human rights, including language rights. In 1948, soon after its founding, its General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "Everyone has the right to education" and "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children." The UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force in 1990 that education should be directed to "The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values" as well as "for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own." Only Somalia and the United States have not ratified this Convention.
The UN declared 1993 the "International Year of the World's Indigenous People," and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1994, 9) wrote that allowing native languages, cultures, and different traditions to perish through "nonassistance to endangered cultures" must henceforth be considered a basic violation of human rights. In 2007 the UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on a vote of 143 to 4 with only Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States opposing. Australia and New Zealand have since reversed their position and Canada and the United States currently are reassessing their stance. The Declaration affirms that indigenous peoples have "the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons," and "the right to establish and control their education systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning."Â
In November 1999 UNESCO proclaimed the first International Mother Language Day, and since 2000, the 21st of February has been celebrated as International Mother Language day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The UN's General Assembly declared 2008 to be the International Year of Languages and UNESCO Director-General KoÃ¯chiro Matsuura affirmed, "Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and local context."
With globalization many countries are becoming more tolerant of linguistic and cultural minorities within their boundaries as the multicultural nature of the world, including its multilingualism, becomes more a fact of life for their citizens. Thomas Hammarberg, the Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe, which includes 47 member countries, stated in 2010:
Minority language education is absolutely essential for protecting language rights and for maintaining languages. Governments should seek to ensure that persons belonging to minorities have adequate opportunities to learn the minority language or even to receive instruction in this language. Bilingualism should be encouraged for all.
A shift from the colonial and post-colonial view of the importance of promoting just one national language can be seen in Kenya's new constitution approved by its people in 2010 that obligates the state to promote and protect the diversity of language of its people.