American University is located in Washington, D.C., at the top of Embassy Row. Chartered by Congress in 1893 to serve the public interest and build the nation, the university educates active citizens who apply knowledge to the most pressing concerns facing the nation and world. Students engage with leading faculty experts and world leaders, learning how to create change and address issues including the global economic crisis, health care, human rights and justice, diversity, the environment and sustainability, immigration, journalism’s transformation, corporate governance, and governmental reform.
WINNEMEM WINTU Pictured: Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader, tribal chief of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, and a last speaker of the language. Where: McCloud River area, Northern California Speakers: fewer than 10 From the dictionary: [p’o·qta] woman WINNEMEM WINTU: PHOTO BY LYNN JOHNSON 16 AMERICAN MAGAZINE APRIL 2014
The soft voices of the two elderly sisters belie the difficulty of their task. They live, as have their ancestors, on the island of Chiloe, off the coast of Chile, an area with fragile ecosystems not found anywhere else in the world. Sitting next to a large wood-burning stove on the cool, rainy island, Wilma and Teolinda Guenteo speak Spanish, Chile’s dominant language, during the interview. But they also speak a centuries-old indigenous tongue called Huillichesungun. They are two of only a handful of people, mostly elderly, who are fluent in the language. The sisters hope to preserve and revitalize their ancestral tongue before it fades completely, before they and other remaining speakers pass on. Indigenous languages link the ancient past to the present, imparting a community’s values to young members and safeguarding a way of life—traditions, livelihoods, and sacred rituals. Languages also preserve knowledge about the natural landscape, its ecosystems and environmental conditions, knowledge that has enabled communities, such as the Huilliche, to survive harsh climates—in deserts, mountains, and rainforests— for millennia. In the face of extreme weather and climate change, this knowledge could also play a vital role in helping the industrialized world find solutions to these challenges. As speech communities with oral traditions go extinct, however, their skills, expertise, and problem-solving strategies could be irretrievably lost. Aside from the titans of global languages—English, Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin among them—some 7,000 smaller tongues are spoken throughout the world. About half of these languages face extinction in the coming decades. According to the United Nations, every two weeks a small endangered tongue disappears when its last speaker dies. Researchers gauge the vitality of languages on a scale ranging from the vigorous, such as ever expanding English, to the endangered, those on the verge of permanent loss. Language loss occurs in nearly every country. Although dominant tongues have edged out smaller ones throughout history, the rate of extinction in recent years has dramatically increased, outpacing that of plants and animals. To pinpoint the threat of extinction and prioritize research, Swarthmore linguistics professor David Harrison, SIS/BA ’88, coined the term language hotspots. Modeled after the concept of biodiversity hotspots, they include areas with jeopardized, undocumented languages within a region having a high diversity of language families (Indo-European would be the language family for English, for example). Linguists at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages—the nonprofit Harrison cofounded that produces materials such as the videorecording of the two Huilliche speakers—have identified some 20 hotspots with an urgent need for research, including those in Asia, Australia, Siberia, West Africa, and North and South America. LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 17