Resuscitating a moribund language

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One Man’s Mission to Revive an Indigenous Language in Argentina

This Language Was Long Believed Extinct. Then One Man Spoke Up. 

Blas Jaime has spent nearly two decades resurrecting Chaná, an Indigenous language in Argentina that he learned from his mother. Blas Omar Jaime has, in many ways, placed the Chaná Indigenous group back on the map.

NYT (1/13/24), by Natalie Alcoba; Photographs and Video by Sebastián López Brach

To revive a half-dead language is not an easy task.

As a boy, Blas Omar Jaime spent many afternoons learning about his ancestors. Over yerba mate and torta fritas, his mother, Ederlinda Miguelina Yelón, passed along the knowledge she had stored in Chaná, a throaty language spoken by barely moving the lips or tongue.

The Chaná are an Indigenous people in Argentina and Uruguay whose lives were intertwined with the mighty Paraná River, the secondlongest in South America. They revered silence, considered birds their guardians and sang their babies lullabies: Utalá tapey-’é, uá utalá dioi — sleep little one, the sun has gone to sleep.

Ms. Miguelina Yelón urged her son to protect their stories by keeping them secret. So it was not until decades later, recently retired and seeking out people with whom he could chat, that he made a startling discovery: No one else seemed to speak Chaná. Scholars had longconsidered the language extinct.

“I said: ‘I exist. I am here,’” said Mr. Jaime, now 89, sitting in his sparse kitchen on the outskirts of Paraná, a midsize city in the Argentine province of Entre Ríos.

Those words kicked off a journey for Mr. Jaime, who has spent nearly two decades resurrecting Chaná and, in many ways, placing the Indigenous group back on the map. For UNESCO, whose mission includes the preservation of languages, he is a crucial vault of knowledge.

His painstaking work with a linguist has produced a dictionary of roughly 1,000 Chaná words. For people of Indigenous ancestry in Argentina, he is a beacon that has inspired many to connect with their history. And for Argentina, he is part of an important, if still fraught, reckoning over its history of colonization and Indigenous erasure.

“Language is what gives you identity,” Mr. Jaime said. “If someone doesn’t have their language, they’re not a people.”

In the countless encounters we've had with endangered and extinct languages, this is a constant theme:  language is tantamount to identity.  Loss of language is loss of identity.

Ms. Miguelina Yelón did not have any daughters to whom she could pass along her knowledge. (Her three daughters all died as children.)  So she turned to Mr. Jaime.

That is how he came to spend his afternoons soaking up stories of the Chaná, learning words that described their world: “atamá” means “river”; “vanatí beáda” is “tree”; “tijuinem” means “god”; “yogüin” is “fire.”

His mother warned him not to share what he knew with anyone. “From the time we were born, we hid our culture, because in those days, ;you were discriminated against for being aboriginal,” he said.

One of the first to publicize him was Daniel Tirso Fiorotto, a journalist who worked for La Nación, a national newspaper.

“I knew that this was a treasure,” said Mr. Fiorotto, who tracked Mr. Jaime down and published his first story in March 2005. “I left there

After reading Mr. Fiorotto’s article, Pedro Viegas Barros, a linguist, also met with Mr. Jaime and found a man who clearly had fragments ofa language, even if it had eroded with the lack of use.

The meeting marked the start of a yearslong collaboration. Mr. Viegas Barros wrote several papers on the process of trying to recover the language, and he and Mr. Jaime published a dictionary that included legends and Chaná rituals.

According to UNESCO, at least 40 percent of the world’s languages — or more than 2,600 — were under threat of disappearing in 2016 because they were spoken by a relatively small number of people, the latest year for which reliable data is available.

Referring to Mr. Jaime, Serena Heckler, a program specialist at the UNESCO regional office in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, said, “We are very aware of the importance of what he’s doing.”

While his work preserving Chaná is not the only case of a language once thought dead suddenly reappearing, it is exceptionally rare, Ms. Heckler said.

If it happened with Chaná and with Hebrew, it can happen with Manchu.


Selected readings

[h.t. François Lang]


  1. Seth said,

    January 17, 2024 @ 1:41 pm

    How does anyone know that the dictionary isn't filled with the equivalent of "My hovercraft is full of eels"?

  2. David Marjanović said,

    January 17, 2024 @ 1:52 pm

    Last documented in 1815!!!

    How does anyone know that the dictionary isn't filled with the equivalent of "My hovercraft is full of eels"?

    Because it fits the previous documentations (limited as those are) and at least one previously unexplained word in local Spanish.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    January 17, 2024 @ 1:53 pm

    More discussion here.

  4. Chester Draws said,

    January 18, 2024 @ 3:09 pm

    It's not really resuscitating the language though, is it? For that you need to have a growing number of speakers.

    This is merely recording it.

    And recording the words of a no longer spoken, and never written, language is basically useless. The grammar is interesting and may have later value to a researcher. The actual sounds are effectively arbitrary.

  5. Chris Button said,

    January 19, 2024 @ 9:05 am

    And recording the words of a no longer spoken, and never written, language is basically useless. The grammar is interesting and may have later value to a researcher. The actual sounds are effectively arbitrary.

    If anything (and I'm showing my bias here), I would have said the opposite. But I disagree on both counts. I think your comment is effectively nullifying in one fell swoop anything ever written in the Journal of the IPA!

  6. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    January 22, 2024 @ 9:05 am

    All this seems to invite the question: How much must the residue of language weigh, when scraped off various discovered artefacts, in order to justify building a sculpture around it?

  7. Domus said,

    February 12, 2024 @ 4:30 am

    What a fascinating and inspiring story! Blas Omar Jaime's dedication to reviving the Chaná Indigenous language in Argentina is truly commendable. The narrative beautifully captures his personal journey, starting with childhood lessons from his mother and culminating in a two-decade-long effort to resurrect a language long considered extinct.

    The importance of language in preserving identity resonates strongly throughout the narrative, emphasizing that the loss of language equates to a loss of people's identity. Mr. Jaime's work, resulting in a dictionary of approximately 1,000 Chaná words, not only contributes to the preservation of a linguistic heritage but also serves as a beacon for people of Indigenous ancestry in Argentina.

    The account highlights the challenges faced by Mr. Jaime, who initially kept the language a secret due to discrimination against Indigenous communities. His decision to share his knowledge became a pivotal moment, leading to collaborations with journalists and linguists, ultimately bringing attention to the revival of Chaná.

    The UNESCO recognition underscores the global significance of Mr. Jaime's efforts, acknowledging the importance of preserving languages as part of cultural heritage. The rarity of such language revivals makes Mr. Jaime's work even more exceptional, offering hope for the preservation of linguistic diversity worldwide.

    This story serves as a powerful reminder of the intrinsic link between language and identity, and it resonates beyond the specific case of Chaná, carrying implications for the broader conversation about language preservation and cultural recognition. #LanguageRevival #CulturalPreservation #IndigenousHeritage

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