Experiencing language death

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Usarufa speakers experience the webUsarufa is a language of Papua New Guinea with just 1200 speakers (ISO-639 code "usa").  There's no fluent speakers under the age of 25, so the language must be considered moribund.  Before posting recordings of this language online, I needed to get informed consent, so I introduced some speakers to the World Wide Web.  We poked around for a while, finding useful sites about about insecticides for dealing with the taro beetle.  Then we turned our attention to audio.

I played them a recording of the "last words" of the Jiwarli language of Western Australia.  After some questioning looks I explained that this language is now dead, and we were listening to its last speaker before he died.  As one they all looked down, shaking their heads in disbelief and saying sorry, sorry, sorry….  It was as if I told them a mutual friend had died.  They urged me to put that recording on a cassette tape so they could take it back to their village.  That way, everyone would surely understand what will happen to the Usarufa language unless there are serious attempts to revitalize it.

I wasn't prepared for the intensity of their response.  Now I'm wondering if a collection of such recordings might be a useful tool in promoting language revitalization, and also in explaining the concept of language archiving.  (Thanks to Ima'o Ta'asata, James Warebu, Sivini Ikilele, and Waks Mark for their dedication to the preservation of Usarufa oral culture, and to Aaron Willems and SIL-PNG for facilitating this work.)


  1. D. Sky Onosson said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Thank you very much for sharing this. I think your idea of collecting recordings like these is an excellent one.

  2. Simon Spero said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    There's an EU initiative hosted at the MPI that has been set up to deal with Language archiving.

    (Cassette tapes are probably not ideal archival media, so keep your originals :)

  3. Bryn LaFollette said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    Thank you for this! I'm often struck by how apparently uncomprehending many people are about the gravity of language death. I'd like to second that a collection of recordings like you describe would be really marvelous.

  4. James C. said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    The opposite of this is the reaction I’ve experienced from a few Americans to whom I’ve played and described Eyak, among other extinct languages. Instead of being dismayed or saddened, they often say something like “no wonder that language died out, it’s so difficult”. Coming from a majority language spoken by millions, people’s perspective is completely different.

    Explaining language loss and language death is notoriously difficult even to people whose language is at risk, I think because language is such an intangible thing. The technique you’ve discovered seems to be effective in conveying the gravity of language death to people, and I’d recommend it to anyone else who has trouble convincing a group whose language is endangered. You should consider writing up a squib or even an article on this and submitting it to the Language Documentation and Conservation journal, or some other similar publication.

  5. Vanessa said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    This made me a little weepy. I'm an American, not a linguist, but I love language. Languages dying are just as sad to me as any endangered species dying out. The big difference to me is that I can understand how lonely humans must feel when there is no one to talk to anymore.

    Thanks for what you are doing.

  6. Amy Stoller said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

    Another American who finds this story very, very moving. Thank you for posting it.

  7. Albatross said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

    [readying self for the slings and arrows]

    I understand that many people, including non-linguists, think it is a bad thing that languages die out, but why do they take it so hard? Is it simply an emotional gut reaction? Does a language — any language, including English — have an intrinsic value simply because it exists? Or, if it reaches the point where there are no more native speakers and it loses its value as a tool of communication, is it just as well that it passes into the realm of history?

    I'm not saying this as a troll. I'm truly curious because, even though I appreciate the beauty of well-written words, I also realize that languages die out from time to time, and I don't think humanity is the lesser for it. In fact, we continue to reach for the stars, to better ourselves and our neighbors, and to make grand new discoveries. Think of me as insensitive if you like, but I wonder why the death of a little-used language always so horrifying.

    For the record, I have studied both English and Spanish, and I have had some stories and poems published, so I'm not a knuckle-dragging English-only type.

  8. marie-lucie said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

    "Language death" is a striking image, but languages don't die: speakers eventually die, and if before dying they usually spoke another language with younger members of their families or tribes, so that they did not pass on their own language in a natural manner by speaking it to their children, the language can get forgotten in a couple of generations. Usually the reason for speaking another language than one's own to one's children is not that they should not speak the old, local language (since that is taken for granted), but that they should learn the dominant one. Unfortunately, the children's own language is going to be the one they hear spoken to them, not the one spoken by adults around them (although the children can have a passive knowledge of it). This is true among immigrant families no less than in indigenous cultures, except that in the case of immigrants their language is still being spoken by all ages in the country of origin, so it won't "die" there.

    Most people outside the literate world don't place a high value on their own language unless there is some important ceremonial use which requires an accurate knowledge of it (eg songs, formulae), because "it's so easy to speak" and comes naturally to a native speaker, while the dominant language has been "hard to learn" and the children therefore should be given a head start by learning it first. Thus the normal transmission is broken, and eventually only a few old people still remember the old language. Telling the old people to start speaking their language to their children and grandchildren can place a heavy burden on them: unless one starts with babies, it is very awkward to switch from the language one normally uses with someone to another, especially one that they don't understand, and the result is frustration on both sides. Unfortunately there is no easy solution to these problems.

  9. Mark F. said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

    Albatross — To me, languages represent the diversity of human experience. Language loss gives me the same sorrow that other kinds of cultural homogenization do. It excites me to hear about languages with no fixed word order, or with special dialects for speaking with certain members of the family, and it makes me sad to hear them go away. A language itself is a giant, collective work of art, but when there are no speakers left it loses its vitality, and the work of art is gone. It hurts me the way it hurt to hear that the Taliban were destroying the giant Bhuddas in Afghanistan. I would likely never have seen them in person anyway, but it made me feel poorer to know that they were no longer here.

    And, of course, the loss must be much greater if it's your language that's dying. A person's language is a big part of their cultural identity. If your language dies out, you may feel like your whole cultural heritage is fading into the mainstream.

    And then, if you're a linguist, languages are data. To lose languages is to lose information about the range of what is possible. Linguists hate to see them disappear.

  10. Albatross said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:08 am

    Thanks, Mark F. You presented the emotional and the practical argument for mourning language death very well. I don't quite feel the way you do, but I understand a little better why you feel that way. I tend to have a more utilitarian view toward languages, though, which is odd given the fact that I have a degree in creative writing rather than technical writing.

    Cognitive dissonance, I suppose.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    I tend to have a more utilitarian view toward languages, though, which is odd given the fact that I have a degree in creative writing rather than technical writing.

    I don't find this odd at all: the vast majority of students in creative writing courses are writing in their own languages, and in my experience, people who love being creative in their own language are not particularly interested in learning others, and when they do start to learn others they find not being able to say everything they would like to say extremely frustrating, so they keep up with language learning only if there is a pressing, utilitarian reason for them to do so.

  12. Aaron Davies said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:48 am

    @stephen bird: turning for a moment from the message to the medium, i find your phrasing "There's no fluent speakers" interesting. i expect that variation in agreement has been discussed elsewhere in language log before….

  13. Albatross said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:54 am


    I know Spanish, too. And I've taken courses in German. I am "particularly interested in learning others." Perhaps just in a different way than you might expect.

  14. Nicki said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    Thank you for this. I may attempt it with some of my students. I teach English (ironically) in Hainan Province, China. Hainan is full of local languages which can vary even over short distances, between one village and the next, over the hill or across the river.

    Many of my students come from those villages, to the larger city of Haikou where I teach. They are not teaching their children their local languages. The children must speak Mandarin in school, and the drive to learn English for success is so strong. The local languages are not seen as having any value. In fact, many students don't even count them when asked how many languages they speak.

    I suspect many of these local languages will die over the next generation or two, or continue to exist only in small pockets in remote villages. I think so much of the local culture and knowledge will disappear too, so I hope to help my students understand and value what they have.

  15. NW said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    @Aaron Davies:

    I think I recall Arnold Zwicky discussing how contracted there's freely takes plural complements whereas there is doesn't: this is a well-known quirk of Present-day English. But I have no idea what search terms to use to find the post.

  16. NW said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 7:22 am

    Ah, old site, and it was Mark with input from Arnold: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002459.html and two previous linked posts.

  17. Randy Alexander said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    Steven, thanks for this! It will certainly be a source of inspiration as I continue to document my findings on the state of the Manchu language, and in my future plans in seeing what I can do to help strengthen the possibility of it surviving. Some people would count it as dead already, given that the few native speakers left are mostly in their 80s, but there is an elementary school where it is taught, in the same village as those old native speakers. With a little tweaking and support from the right people, it could come back.

  18. Randy Alexander said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    @Nicki: I'm very interested in Hainan. If you could get in touch with me, I'd be much obliged. (Email address is on the "About us" page on the linked blog.)

  19. yello.cape.cod said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    Okay, I don't know if I'm dense or what, but I can't find any sound files on the site you linked for Jiwarli. I would really like to listen to them.

  20. Lisa said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    Just heard a story on NPR, and I can't find anything about it now, but it was about a digital world map on the web. Anyone can upload sounds to the map and pinpoint them to a geographic area. Then anyone can click on a point in the map and listen to sounds.

    This would be a great thing to use for language recordings.

    And for the record I do get a mournful emotional response every time I hear of another language going the way of the Dodo. I think it's natural for anyone who has a love of languages, even if you didn't know about the language's existence before.

  21. marie-lucie said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    @Albatross: I know Spanish, too. And I've taken courses in German. I am "particularly interested in learning others." Perhaps just in a different way than you might expect.

    Good for you, Albatross, I am glad to see that there are exceptions to the general rule I have observed (and of course my experience as an individual is limited, but I taught French to anglophones for many years). Note that I did not say "all", only "the majority" and "in my experience". Have you canvassed your fellow creative writing graduates about their experiences and opinions on the subject?

    I am not sure what you think I might expect, but by "learning a language" I mean "try to become fluent enough to communicate without too much hesitation with native speakers" and "try to read it for your own use and enjoyment, even if not close to that of a native speaker" (I am not a creative writer myself, so I don't immediately think of the writing aspect). I don't think my expectations are that different from those of other language learners or teachers, but maybe yours are.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    people are not teaching their children their languages … but the language is taught in the elementary school…

    Normally, people do not "teach" their children their language, they just speak to them in the normal course of life, and the children pick it up little by little, especially if the whole community, including other children, speaks the same language. When the last speakers are in their 80's, children do not pick up the language from their normal models (parents and grandparents), and since they do not start school until they are already very fluent speakers, the way another language (not the language of instruction) is "taught" in the school, often by teachers untrained in language teaching, will not go very far in revitalizing the old language.

    People interested in language revitalization, even in cases where there are no speakers left and the only witnesses to the language are older linguists' notes, including old missionary texts, would do well to look at the work of Leanne Hinton at UC Berkeley, who has inspired and trained a number of people eager to learn and reclaim the languages of their ancestors. Another person who has done tremendous work is Daryl Baldwin in his ancestral Miami language (never spoken in Miami, FLA), which had been extinct for a long time but is now being studied by all ages (and Darryl is raising his children as native speakers). Kathy Sikorski of the University of Alaska is also doing wonderful work teaching her own language (one of the Athabaskan family).

  23. Nicki said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 11:02 pm


    I am attempting to do so but the block of google and gmail is really frustrating me at the moment. If you have access try me at wallaby78erik (gmail) and I will hopefully be able to access that soon.

  24. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

    This brings tears to my eyes. I don't fully understand why, but it brings tears to my eyes.

  25. Bob Ladd said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 3:41 am

    The late Peter Ladefoged had a fairly contrarian (for a linguist) view of language death, arguing that it is presumptuous for outsiders to judge the choices made by speakers of little-used language who switch to majority languages for reasons of economic opportunity – and (like Albatross above) I find this generally utilitarian view of language perfectly defensible. I don't doubt for a minute that there are many people like Steven's Usarufa speakers who deeply regret the likely fate of their language, but I also don't see anything wrong with the many other people who know that English (or Arabic, or French, or Mandarin, or whatever) will be essential for them and their children to lead what they hope will be more prosperous and fulfilling lives, and simply leave other ways of speaking behind.

  26. Peter K. Austin said,

    June 28, 2009 @ 5:35 am

    Thanks Steven for pointing readers to the Jiwarli website (the sound recordings are on the stories pages — linked from http://www.linguistics.unimelb.edu.au/research/jiwarli/stories.html).

    Let's not forget that it was the late Jack Butler, the last fluent speaker of Jiwarli, whose commitment to recording his language for posterity resulted in the two of us being able to record material of various types, including mythology and personal reminiscences. A book containing 70 of Jack's texts was published in Japan in 1997 — copies are available for free by contacting me at SOAS.

  27. John Cowan said,

    July 18, 2009 @ 3:11 am

    "'Málin eru höfuðeinkenni þjóðanna — Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own; let the languages perish and the peoples perish too, or become different peoples. But that never happens except as the result of oppression and distress.'

    "These are the words of a little-known Icelander of the early nineteenth century, Sjéra Tomas Sæmundsson, He had, of course, primarily in mind the part played by the cultivated Icelandic language, in spite of poverty, lack of power, and insignificant numbers, in keeping the Icelanders in being in desperate times. But the words might as well apply to the Welsh of Wales, who have also loved and cultivated their language for its own sake (not as an aspirant for the ruinous honour of becoming the lingua franca of the world), and who by it and with it maintain their identity."

    –J.R.R. Tolkien, "English and Welsh"

  28. donna Chenoweth said,

    February 26, 2011 @ 1:24 am

    My sister in law, Vida Chenoweth and her partner were bible translators in NewGuinea and they made friends with the usarufa
    tribe, learning their language then translating the bible in their language…they later started a school and taught them English
    The children learned very quickly and taught their parents…
    Why havent they been mentioned in your articles???? Vida lives in Enid Oklahoma, Darlene was traveling to the coast with a pilot, Jars plane and 2 other people when their plane crashed and was never found, the jungle there looks like broccoli from the air….
    Im just curious as to "why" thank u Donna Chenoweth Arlington Tx

  29. dasi said,

    August 23, 2012 @ 12:16 am

    I'd like to know more about Darlene Bee and Vida Chenoweth…esp. their character. Just how "loved" were they? If the Usarufa people thirty years back told stories of them, what would be said? Over 500 Bibles they made are sitting on shelves on a linguistic center not too far from the Usarufa area. Some say the orthography has too many tonal marks to be readable. But those Bibles are there….I don't want them to go to waste. I am trying to find ways of getting those Bibles "wanted" and into the hands of the people…recording the Bible on tape or phones is one strategy that I think funding is sought for. Are there other strategies?

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