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Community Information, Lifelong Learning

Why Save Languages? A Few Words About Language Extinction and Revitalization


There is no language like the Irish for soothing and quieting. —John Millington Synge, The Aran Islands

An Irish Hearth. Part of a painting by Philip Gray. Used with permission of the artist.An Irish Hearth. Part of a painting by Philip Gray. Used with permission of the artist.When I think of my father during my growing-up years, I usually picture him relaxing after work in a kitchen chair with a newspaper, next to the radiator. Did he sit there because its warmth took him back to the hearth that was the heart of the cottage he grew up in, in the rural west of Ireland?

Another memory is of him teaching me how to greet someone and a typical response, in Irish Gaelic. In the decades since I've often shared that brief bit of dialogue to show that Irish is not American English spoken with an Irish accent — which is sometimes called a brogue — but rather a completely different language. I later learned from the 1901 census that both of his parents were bilingual Irish Gaelic and English speakers. When I hear a song sung in Irish, or even one with an occasional word in the language, somehow it bridges a gap of hundreds of years for me, and I feel a connection with the lives of those forebears I never met.

Perhaps your grandparents also spoke a language that you do not know — and it may be one that is endangered, as is Irish. In Ireland, English largely supplanted the Irish language as a result of colonialism. There are various reasons languages become endangered and, in many cases, extinct. Globalization, cultural imperialism, and urbanization are a few I've seen cited. Some say language loss is inevitable and the number of languages has ebbed and flowed since the dawn of history.

But others feel keenly the loss of a language, seeing it as the loss of a culture. These are often the linguists of the world — those who traffic freely in terms such as patois, creole, dialect and cant. Many of them join forces with people who speak and cherish minority languages in order to revitalize them through efforts like the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity's Endangered Language Project, the Endangered Language Alliance, and National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project.

Cultural and political leaders may also spearhead efforts to bring back languages in danger; such was the case with Irish, I am happy to report! Children now learn Irish in schools in Ireland, and it is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, while English is the second. And one local initiative available internationally (thanks to streaming audio) is Fordham University's weekly program for learning Irish, Míle Fáilte.

On Saturday, September 29, 2012, NYPL hosts an Endangered Language Fair, which will feature linguists involved in language revitalization as well as passionate lovers of languages such as Garifuna and Circassian, as well as Irish Gaelic and two of its fellow Celtic languages — Welsh and Breton.

Attendees will learn about local and international efforts to preserve languages, and find out how they themselves can start to learn these languages.


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Have there been any studies about the alliances between language spoken and ways of perceiving the world / culture / ways of thinking? How much do we know, scientifically, how the brain functions in terms of language as a set of systems to construct our own worlds - or should I say, a type of world shared mutually between one community that is unique to that community?

Hmmmm. . . .

Good questions! I expect the linguists speaking will address these issues at the Endangered Language Fair on 9/29. If they don't, there will be time to ask questions so--come on down!

this might be the concept

this might be the concept you're thinking of:

The Mile Failte link above is

The Mile Failte link above is not working.

thanks, it's been fixed.

thanks, it's been fixed.

Wikimedia Indigenous Languages

Good day, I'd like to share with everybody the creation of Wikimedia Indigenous Languages, an international body for promoting and supporting the use of small and endangered languages on Wikimedia projects like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great tool to share, teach, learn and preserve languages that will be freely accessible forever. Please visit our webpage to have more info:

Yiddish and Welsh, and more in an American Jewish Family

Hi Bridgid, Great post! It got me thinking about language in my own family. My mother wasn't taught Yiddish, because her parents were more focused on integrating into the majority culture in London, England. What's interesting is that in the schools there, they did learn about Welsh, and Mom even learned a little when she was evacuated to Wales during the blitz on London in WWII. My older brother learned Mandarin from his Chinese in-laws and my niece and nephews studied it in school. People seem to learn the languages they find useful. That explains why I know more Spanish than Yiddish *grin* Hope this gets others thinking about their own linguistic family histories.

So interesting!

Thanks for the comment, Pam--you really come from a family of polyglots!

Great Blog

This is a great blog. It is very interesting how languages are formed and how we use them. I learned an Italian dialect when I was very young, and I still use it today. Italians are famous for so having many dialects since the country was not unified until the late 1800's. As Pam says we tend to use the languages which are most widely used rather than those which are not. My son is a budding anthropologist who speaks Mandarin and is hoping to also learn Mongolian since he has visited that country two times and hopes to return at some point. However, I am always after him to learn Italian since that is the language of his ancestors!

Great post. I am sure it was

Great post. I am sure it was a great event and I am sorry I had to miss it. Hope you will be doing more.

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