The Cheat Sheet

Menominee, language death and why we must speak up!

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on April 04, 2019 Published on April 03, 2019

The world is losing many of its indigenous languages faster than ever before

Who’s Menominee, for starters?

Well, the Menominee is a Native American tribe officially recognised by the US government, and the people live in Wisconsin and speak Menominee, the language their tribe is named after. In their tongue, Menominee means Wild Rice and the name reflects the core vocation of the small tribe. A few days ago, a small gathering of six very young students and their three teachers in Wisconsin got public attention to the plight of the precious and old Menominee language which is now spoken by less than a dozen people. The teachers and their students were singing rhymes and telling stories in Menominee as part of a civil society attempt to protect the dying language, as part of the Menominee reservation project, according to the Miluwakee Magazine which reported the news.

Just ten people speaking the language?

Yes, isn’t that terrible? Interestingly, the United Nations has declared 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages and the sad truth is that the world is losing many of its indigenous languages faster than ever. In general, we now lose one language nearly every two weeks, according to language experts who warn us that about half of the estimated 7,099 languages people speak on Earth now will vanish by the next century.


Over a thousand languages are already in the list of critically or severely endangered by agencies such as the UN. Nearly 78 per cent of the world’s population speaks just 85 languages. Some 3,500 of the smallest tongues have only a little over 80 lakh speakers worldwide. Mind you, English itself has more than 30 crore speakers for whom it is the first-language. In China and elsewhere, over 84 crore people speak Mandarin. Evidently, a language colonisation is on, conquering and liquidating hapless tongues.

Oh dear, that’s bloodbath!

You said it. The gravity of language death is still not understood properly by policymakers or the public in general, especially in countries such as India which are blessed with abundant linguistic diversity and where languages are dying without anyone noticing. As linguist and critic David Crystal notes in his seminal work, Language Death, only 600 of existing languages in the world are ‘safe’ from the threat of extinction. Crystal’s study was published nearly two decades ago and now language historians estimate that the pace of death of languages has grown in the age of social media and digital technology, especially after services such as Google Search and virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa nearly and absurdly standardised the way people interact globally, making it extremely difficult for small languages to survive the onslaught of giants such as English and Spanish.

But isn’t this inevitable in a way, with populations declining and new cultures emerging?

To be frank, some languages will die naturally as history has shown us. But over the past few decades languages are vanishing at a pace that is unprecedented in history. According to the Linguistic Society of America, an agency that tracks languages, in the past 25 years, an average of nine languages died and vanished from the face of Earth, and clearly the speed of extinction is going up. Which is why the UN thinks it is important to map and preserve languages and has called for participation from governments, businesses, civil society activists and students of languages to protect dying languages. Taking efforts to save languages are important for businesses as well because a plurality in languages help niche players develop products and avoid bigger competitors and run boutique enterprises whereas a homogenous language market is where a level-playing field may not exist. Take English and Facebook as an example, and you get the drift.

So, what can be done?

Just raise your tongue! Learn new languages and preserve your native tongue. Go back to your roots and dig out words that vanished and every word is a culture in miniature. Maybe we can start by reading Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, an enchanting book by Mark Abley to understand the eerie situation we are in. As the beautiful 2017 Mexican film by Ernesto Contreras — I Dream in Another Language (Sueño en otro idioma)’ which talks about the story of two old friends who are the only two existing speakers of a dying language (the duo are bitter rivals now and don’t talk to each other) — shows, when a language (which essentially means a collection of memories of the people who have spoken it over the ages) dies unpreserved, that becomes a case of cultural genocide and societies end up paying a heavy price for losing their past.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on April 03, 2019

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