A Dispatch from The World in Words: From Ainu to Zaza

"The loss of language implies the loss of people. But before it dies, a language halts, gets stuck in the mud..."

A young man from a mountain village in Tibet arrives in Texas to study. He is alone and isolated. A Ford Mustang is parked on the street-the racing horse on the grill with MUSTANG embossed below prominently featured. His heart rate spikes and a smile spreads across his face, a sign from home! A Texan woman with blond locks and Daisy Dukes gets in the car and drives off. The moment of excitement flips to complete loneliness. Mustang is the mountain village he calls home where his small community speaks Mustangi, a little-known language on the verge of erasure, “one of those village languages.” The man flees Texas for Jackson Heights, Queens. Among the great diversity of languages spoken in the neighborhood, he unexpectedly finds a small community of Mustangi speakers (and fewer Ford Mustangs)—the true home a long way from home.

Aline Simone told this story at a live taping of the podcast The World in Words at the New York Public Library on June 21st. In the episode, “From Ainu to Zaza,” Hosts Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki focused on endangered languages and the people fighting both to preserve them and to keep them alive. In the conversations, stories and music of the evening, the guests and hosts kept coming back to this question of stories. Cox began the episode with a discussion of Ainu (he has reported on the language before). Ainu has no linguistic relatives. Linguists can map neither the origins of the language, nor of its speakers. Ignored by the government and universities alike, the dominant culture erases the history of the language and its people. Few Ainu speakers remain and yet fewer use the language in conversation—as an active, used language Ainu has all but dissolved. 

The folksong Ainu tradition perseveres, sold to tourists as an authentic experience of old-timey culture. It is reserved for the recitation, sung in low steady tones by elders. The language is limited to such epic poetry—many Japanese people who have no working knowledge of the language are still familiar with its folksongs. Contemporary use of the language for communication and conversation has all but died, yet people—from Japan, from abroad—exhibit attachment to its poetic traditions.

James Lovell sang a similar story about Garifuna. Lovell comes from Belize, where he grew up in Dangriga Town, hearing Garifuna from his mother and responding in Creole (from the streets) or English (from school), disinterested in the dated, underutilized language of home. Garifuna comes from Saint Vincent. As Lovell explained, the Garifuna people resisted slavery under British colonial rule. Their refusal and rebellion led to exile—the British scattered the Garifuna people across the Caribbean: to Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize and Guatemala.

The language, for Lovell, the Garifuna language and people testifies to the inextricable pursuits of freedom and music. For it was the music flooding the streets of his childhood that moved Lovell to learn the spoken language, to sing his story and the stories of his community. He now teaches young Garifuna people the language through song. He led a sing-a-long with the audience at the taping, teaching us the unfamiliar sounds to a familiar tune—Are you sleeping, Are you sleeping, Brother John? Brother John? Among the Garifuna and Ainu peoples alike, the narrative, oral and musical traditions of the languages reinforce their power in the face of active repression.


While reporting on the Ainu language, Cox explained a complicated encounter with the politics of documentation. There he was, an Irishman, guided by a Russian linguist in a remote corner of Japan working to record the language. But for whom? And how?

Cox and Porzucki invited Daniel Kaufman of the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) to help answer those questions. Based in New York City, the ELA brings together linguists and educators to preserve and teach endangered languages. Through multiple means the nonprofit runs extensive programming around linguistic diversity. ELA works to bridge the gap between the academics who study dying languages and the people who speak them. They work on languages from across the world—New York City is a good home base.

Kaufman pointed out how new awareness of dying languages is—no one thought much of it before the early 1990s. Like endangered species threatened by extinction, endangered languages face disappearance. Some linguists predict that close to half of the 7,000 languages spoken today will dissolve within the century as their few remaining speakers pass. Of those 7,000 languages, 50 of them are spoken by half the world’s population. The other half speaks the remaining 6,950 tongues. Kaufman posed a key question in the field of language death: what is the best way to ‘save’ a language?

He pointed to a constant point of contention in the field: preservation versus revitalization. The linguist arrives with tape recorders and notebooks to document the language in archives. The community may have no interest in such “pickling,” instead motivated to bring the language, and its associated culture, back to into daily life. Kaufman underscored the importance of collaborative documentation processes—the speakers of the endangered language must not only participate in the documentation, but in fact direct the process.

Dr. Larry Kimura led one such effort in Hawaii. Upon entry into the Union in 1959, the active repression of the Hawaiian language began. Policy from Washington prohibited instruction in the indigenous language; a rapid decline followed. The effects of this action came to light in a matter of years. Save for the over-usage of Aloha in advertising, it became rare to see or hear the language. Hawaiian identity and the use of the language grew more obscure and simplified. It was not until 1987—after many years of community-based activist work in the university, in the public school system, among families—that public schools could carry out instruction in Hawaiian.


A conversation about endangered languages is equally a conversation about death and politics. Speaking of a language disappearing obscures the darkness buried in lost tongues. A language stops when its speakers stop speaking—when the last of those fluent pass. The loss of language implies the loss of people. But before it dies, a language halts, gets stuck in the mud, abandoned by young people distracted by adolescence or disinterested in strengthening ties to the past. The halting of language is also a political strategy of oppression: the powerful have oft repressed indigenous, local languages in favor of a dominant standard. The means and rationale for language repression have changed over time—now English is necessary “to succeed” but what about the music?


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