Losing the Languages of the Americas

512px-ChamanIt is estimated (Linguistics 2011, 2012) that before the arrival of Columbus in America, 350 languages were spoken in Mexico and Central America, and 1450 in South America. At that time, a significant part of the world’s languages were indigenous American languages. Nowadays, that number is far reduced. So what has become of them?

Today’s linguistic reality in the region, says Russ Rymer (2012), is very different; numerous Native American languages have become extinct, especially those formerly isolated in the Amazon. Some of the survivors are lucky enough to hold official status, along with Spanish. This is the case of Quechua in Peru and Bolivia; Aymara in Bolivia and Guarani in Paraguay, Bolivia and the Argentine province of Corrientes. However, centuries of stigmatism and racist policies against indigenous communities have had a devastating effect on many native languages between the younger generations, overpowering most attempts at preservation.

In other cases, external assistance has made a huge difference when it comes to revitalising a language. The Seri people of Mexico were fortunate when the American linguistics experts Edward and Mary Beck Moser moved to their community in 1951 in order to study their language, Cmiique Iitom. Their work with the Seri has since continued to help raise the number of Cmiique Itiom speakers and now it is estimated to be between 650 and 1000. Today the language has its own dictionary, started by the Mosers and finished by their daughter and her husband, Steve Marlett – himself a linguistic who continues work on the topic, and who has published several papers on it.

Other initiatives such as the campaign from the organization of Cultural Survival http://www.culturalsurvival.org/programs/elc/program are considered an excellent way to revive the Native American languages. These could be extended to all Latin America countries and be effectively supported by local and regional authorities and governments, as well as institutions like UNESCO. The promotion of teaching and learning native languages in schools, of valuing and rewarding bilingualism between regional populations, could be another way of preserving them, along with a compiling of the grammar and vocabulary of those that are simply spoken languages.

It is known that many Latin American countries have other important, pressing issues such as political corruption, economic recovery, social inequality and poverty, environmental problems and more, and at times it may seem trivial to be concerned about old languages. Perhaps that is part of the problem. If so, this is a shame, because unlike all its problems, South and Central America’s languages are disappearing fast.

We should ask ourselves, do we wish to hold to the romantic idea of Native American languages as part of the heritage of the pre-Columbus era and simply keep them as a legacy of a lost world? Should we be pragmatic and recognise that a language is born, evolves according to the needs of its speakers and eventually, when it has no means of communication anymore, dies and disappears? Or instead, do we believe that the vanishing of these indigenous languages, far from being a triumph of Spanish, Portuguese or English, would be a sad signature of our modern world, a failure to ourselves, and probably a future source of regret for their loss, when it is too late for even more languages.

If you found this subject interesting, below are some references to source material.

• Cultural Survival non-profit, human rights organisation, http://www.culturalsurvival.org/programs/elc/program
• Linguistics 201: Native American Languages, http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/ling201/test3materials/Native_American%20Langs.htm appeared on 27 June 2013.
• Rymer, Russ (July 2012) , Varnishing Languages, National Geographic magazine http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/vanishing-languages/rymer-text


By Itziar Simo Arroyo

Itziar is a Spanish tutor with Oxford Home Schooling