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6 Last Living Speakers of Dying Languages

by Nadia Jones

There are around 7,000 languages spoken on planet Earth. Many of these, perhaps most, are at risk of extinction within just a few generations, as first colonialism and now technology and globalization have homogenized the world's tongues. Sometimes language death takes place abruptly, and in other cases a gradual merger takes place with another, politically or economically dominant language.

Linguists often race to study a language before it dies, tracking the extinction process much as conservationists would an endangered species. In a surprising number of cases, they have been able to pinpoint a single remaining speaker who will in some sense take that language to their grave. It gets a little complicated here, as this designation may indicate the last native-born speaker, the last monoglot speaker, or simply the last fluent speaker. Here are all the known people who currently qualify as "last speakers" of a language:

1. Edwin Benson

Language: Mandan

The remnants of the Mandan tribe were gathered with others to form the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, based on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. Benson, whose Mandan name Ma-doke-wa-des-she means "Iron Bison," has for years been active in teaching the language to schoolchildren.

2. Cristina Calderón

Language: Yaghan

As of 2005, when her sister-in-law died, Ms. Calderón became the last full-blooded representative of the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, famous for being the southernmost people in the world. She lives on Navarino Island in Chile and recently published a book of Yaghan tales entitled Hai Kur Mamashu Shis ("I Want to Tell You a Story").

3. Doris Jean Lamar McLemore

Language: Wichita

Ms. McLemore, the Oklahoman daughter of a Wichita mother and a white father, was raised by her Wichita-speaking grandparents and is now the language's only remaining fluent speaker. However, she has maintained a half-century-long collaboration with University of Colorado linguist David Rood to document and preserve Wichita.

4. Charlie Mungulda

Language: Amurdag

Once spoken among Aborigines of Australia's Northern Territory, the Amurdag language was prematurely declared extinct decades ago. Mr. Mungulda is believed to be the only living Amurdag speaker, but has had no one to speak it to for many years, and so naturally his own ability to recall it has decayed somewhat. Nevertheless, he has shared much invaluable lore of the Dreaming, including animal names in Amurdag.

5. Verdena Parker

Language: Hupa

The Hupa people of northern California, like most Native American tribes, were subjected to a process of forced assimilation and English-only education. Ms. Parker avoided boarding school, being raised by her grandmother to speak Hupa. Nowadays she works with Stanford and Berkeley scholars to document the language, while also revitalizing it through an immersion program for high-schoolers that seems to have met with some degree of enthusiasm.

6. John Steckley

Language: Wyandot

Not a native-born Wyandot but a Canadian academic, John Steckley was nonetheless adopted into the tribe in 1999 (and given the interesting name Tehaondechoren, "he who splits the country in two") after decades of studying their language, also known as Huron. He recently completed the first Huron-English dictionary to be published in over 250 years.

These priceless, straggling survivors of cultural conflict and attenuation have much to offer a world that becomes more uprooted and homogenous each day. They resemble the secret enclave in the last scene of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, except instead of a single book inside each person, there is an entire language (and thus a worldview, a whole people, a way of life). With a little luck and a lot of determined effort, their words will survive them. Languages like Irish and Hebrew have successfully come back to life where political and ethnic passion existed to buttress scholarly interest; let's hope that in each of these cases, there are younger people who care enough to take up the torch.

About the writer

Nadia Jones is a freelance writer and blogger who enjoys sharing her knowledge on topics of education and higher learning. She offers online college advice and guidance to readers throughout the blogosphere. Reach her at nadia.jones5@gmail.com.

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