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Endangered Languages
Louise Erdrich, photo by Robin Holland
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April 9, 2010

In her interview with Bill Moyers, Louise Erdrich speaks about her involvement in a personal and community effort to revive the language of the Ojibwe. Like an increasing number around the globe, Erdrich didn't grow up speaking the traditional tongue:
"My grandfather spoke it. And he spoke it as he prayed. He had his medicine bundle in his prayer objects. And he would walk in back of the house. And he would stand in front in the woods and just go a little way in. And then I would stand behind him and listen to him praying. And as I grew up, I believed and thought that Ojibwe was like Latin. Like it was a language that was a ceremonial language. And it wasn't until I was in my teens that I walked into a situation where people in a store were all speaking Ojibwe, and it was a community where people spoke the language. It was that I heard my grandfather's words in every context suddenly. And I wanted to know what people were saying. And they were laughing, and I wanted to know what the jokes were. I wanted to get the jokes."
Erdrich is now learning Ojibwe, noted in the 1992 edition of the GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS as "languages most complex" for having more than 4,000 verb forms. Ojibwe is spoken by about 10,000 people in more than 200 communities across the Great Lakes region in the U.S. — but 80 percent of them are older than 60. The Ojibwe Vocabulary Project is engaged in creating a growing dictionary and there are on-the-ground efforts to encourage inter-generational conversations. Erdrich's daughters are learning Ojibwe, and may end up more fluent than Erdrich.

Scholars disagree about the number of living languages (estimates range between 6,000 and 7,000). But no one questions that many of these languages — as many as 50 percent — are under threat of extinction within 50 to 100 years. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which sponsors language preservation programs, has called language "the DNA of a culture," and much of today's field work — like that of the Ojibwe Vocabulary Project — is directed at not just preserving languages, but reviving them.

Erdrich notes the crucial importance of the spoken language to any community: "We never question the importance of keeping an artifact, of keeping something special that tells us about people who lived long ago, right? We have museums that we devote millions of dollars to keeping these artifacts. But how much more extraordinary is it to have a living language that tells us about people, since before we have a history of these people. It's all in the language."

Find out more about the battle to preserve and revive endangered languages below.
Related Media:
We Shall Remain is a multi-media project that establishes Native history as an essential part of American history. You can view the five broadcast episodes online and find a deep Web site of additional materials.

In FACES OF AMERICA WITH HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR., the Harvard scholar turns to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of renowned Americans including Louise Erdrich. You can view her interview, and the whole series, online.

References and Reading:
The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project
The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project at SOAS, University of London, supports research, training, and archiving for endangered languages throughout the world. The group maitains Online Resources for Endangered Languages — a library of 350 annotated and categorised links in English and Arabic to Web sites about endangered language documentation and revitalisation.

Living Tongues
The mission of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages is to promote the documentation, maintenance, preservation, and revitalization of endangered languages worldwide through linguist-aided, community-driven multi-media language documentation projects. They are engaged a five-year joint project with The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY titled "Enduring Voices" to be launched this fall. The first expedition to Australia took place in July-August 2007.

National Geographic: Enduring Voices Project
The Web site for this joint project with the Institute for Endangered Languages has a number of engaging interactive features: a map of language hot-spots, photos and videos about the project's field work and links to local sites and groups dedicated to language revitalization.

Native Languages of the Americas
Native Languages of the Americas is a Minnesota non-profit corporation (federal tax exempt status 501-C-3), dedicated to the preservation and promotion of endangered American Indian languages. The site serves as a compendium of information including language maps, links to language sites, resources for teachers and learners.

PBS: "The Linguists"
The Linguists is a chronicle of two scientists — David Harrison and Gregory Anderson — racing to document languages on the verge of extinction. In Siberia, India, and Bolivia, the linguists confront head-on the very forces silencing languages: racism, humiliation, and violent economic unrest.

Endangered Language Fund
ELF was founded in 1996 with the goal of supporting endangered language preservation and documentation projects. Our main mechanism for supporting work on endangered languages has been funding grants to individuals, tribes, and museums. ELF's grants have promoted work in over 30 countries.

"Linguist's Preservation Kit Has New Digital Tools " Chris Nicholson, THE NEW YORK TIMES, July 27, 2009.
TIMES feature on linguist Tucker Childs and his work with the Kim peoples of Sierra Leone.

BBC: "The tragedy of dying languages "
BBC, February 5, 2010. Article by K David Harrison, author of the forthcoming book THE LAST SPEAKERS: THE QUEST TO UNCOVER THE WORLD'S MOST ENDANGERED LANGUAGES work. The article also marks the passing of one such language — Boa Sr, who died in February, 2010, was the last speaker of the 70,000-year-old Bo language.

"Indian Tribes Go in Search of Their Lost Languages "THE NEW YORK TIMES, Patricia Cohen, April 5, 2010.
Story about University of New York Stony Brook and Shinnecock or Unkechaug tribe to resuscitate their languages — which have not been spoken for nearly 200 years.


"Speaking of Faith"
Read the transcript of an October 2009 interview with David Treuer who is compiling the first practical grammar of the Ojibwe language.

"Aaniin Ekidong - "How Do You Say..."
Site for the Ojibwe Vocabulary Project of the Minnesota Humanities Center. You can download a copy of the current version of the ever-expanding dictionary online.

"Keeping the Ojibwe language alive, thriving," Jeff Karoub, Associated Press, May 11, 2008
Documenting the University of Michigan's Program in Ojibwe Language and Literature.

Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
The official Web site of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Belcort North Dakota has a wealth of information on the tribe past and present.
Also This Week:
Renowned for her mastery of multiple genres — including thirteen novels, poetry, children's literature, and a memoir of early motherhood — Louise Erdrich discusses how her Native American heritage and unique cultural experience has impacted her life, motherhood, and work.

View photos of Louise Erdrich's family, life and times.

More about endangered languages and the Ojibwe Vocabulary Project.

Historian, international relations expert and former US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich returns to the JOURNAL to discuss America's long war in Afghanistan.
>>Watch a web exclusive, extended interview with Andrew Bacevich here.

Explore JOURNAL coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan and the effect of war at home.

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