Languages don't just die naturally. People abandon mother tongues, because they're forced to. Often, the pressure is political.
In 1892, the US Army general Richard Henry Pratt argued that killing indigenous cultures was the only alternative to killing indigenous people. "Kill the Indian," he said, "but save the man." And until 1978, the government did just that, removing indigenous children from their families and forcing them into boarding schools where they were given English names and punished for speaking their languages. Assimilation was a complement to genocide.
Seven thousand languages are alive today, but few are recognized by their own governments or supported online. So for people from the vast majority of cultures, globalization remains profoundly alienating. It means giving up your language for someone else's. And if nothing changes, as many as 3,000 languages could disappear in 80 years.
But things are changing. Around the world, people are reviving ancestral languages and rebuilding their cultures. As far as we know, language reclamation began in the 1800s when, at a time of rising antisemitism, Jewish communities looked to their ancestral language, Hebrew, as a means of cultural revival. And though it had been dormant for over 1,000 years, it was well preserved in books of Jewish religion and philosophy. So Jewish activists studied and taught it to their children, raising the first native speakers in nearly 100 generations. Today, it's the mother tongue of five million Jews. And at least for me, an assimilated English-speaking member of the Jewish diaspora, a pillar of cultural sovereignty. Two thousand years later, we're still here.
Now, until recently, Hebrew's reawakening was an anomaly. Few languages are as well preserved as ours was, and the creation of Israel, the first Jewish state in over 1,000 years, provided a space for Hebrew's daily use. In other words, most cultures just weren't given a chance.
(Video) Good evening, I'm Elizabeth and I live in Cornwall.
That was Cornish, the ancestral language of Cornwall, which today is technically a county in southern England. In the 1900s, Cornish activists fought for their culture. The language had been dormant for over 100 years, but they used old books and plays to teach it to their children. However, this new generation of Cornish speakers was scattered across Cornwall and unable to use the language freely. By the 1990s, Cornish had reawakened, but it wasn't thriving. Then, in the early 2000s, Cornish speakers found one another online and leveraged digital spaces to speak on a daily basis. From there, they organized weekly or monthly events where they could gather and speak in public.
Today, some schools teach Cornish. There are Cornish language signs, ice-cream commercials, Wikipedia, and even memes.
And with their language once again intact, the people of Cornwall have secured recognition as a Celtic nation alongside Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They stared down centuries of forced assimilation and said, "We're not a county in England. We're a people in our own right. And we're still here."
And they're not the only ones. The Tunica-Biloxi tribe of Louisiana is reviving their ancestral language.
(Video) My name is Teyanna. My friends, they call me "Quiet Storm."
It started in the 1980s, when Donna Pierite and her family started taking trips to Baton Rouge and New Orleans to photocopy old dictionaries stored away in university archives. The goal was to study Tunica and teach it to the children and share it with the community. Today, they're leading a Tunica renaissance. Since 2014, there are nearly 100 speakers in language immersion classes, and according to a 2017 census, 32 new fluent speakers, some of whom, like Donna's daughter Elisabeth, are teaching Tunica to their children. These new speakers are creating content, Facebook videos and also memes.
And the more they publish, the more they inspire other Tunica people to get involved. Recently, a tribal member living in Texas wrote Elisabeth on Facebook, asking how to say "bless these lands." It was for a yard sign, so she could show her neighbors that her culture is alive and thriving today.
Now, Hebrew, Cornish and Tunica are just three examples from a groundswell of language activism on every continent. And whether they're Jèrriais speakers from the Channel Isles, or Kenyan sign language speakers from Nairobi, all communities working to preserve or reclaim a language have one thing in common: media, so their language can be shared and taught. And as the internet grows, expanding media access and creation, preserving and reclaiming ancestral languages is now more possible than ever.
So what are your ancestral languages? Mine are Hebrew, Yiddish, Hungarian and Scottish Gaelic, even though I was raised in English. And luckily for me, each of these languages is available online. Hebrew in particular — it came installed on my iPhone, it's supported by Google Translate, it even has autocorrect. And while your language may not be as widely supported, I encourage you to investigate, because chances are, someone, somewhere, has started getting it online.
Reclaiming your language and embracing your culture is a powerful way to be yourself in the age of globalization, because as I recently learned to say in Hebrew, "'nḥnw 'dyyn k'n" — we're still here.