The North-West

TEN Took Away Our Native Tongue

A quick sitrep: we are still here in Seattle for reasons best explained by that sailing truism – if you want to ruin someone’s life, give them a boat; if you want to bankrupt them, give them a wooden boat. The Race Marshal has worked wonders in making Heraclitus carbon neutral: our standby engine and all our equipment runs off a rack of batteries that recharge as we sail. But our wooden boat was made in 1927 – so understandably there were issues marrying the future to the stylish.

One of the joys of the refurb is the magnificent new sound system. The Race Marshal was testing it out this morning by having Paul Revere and the Raiders ( a band that had some of its first gigs in Seattle) belt out Indian Reservation. The song is a bald four-beats-to-the-bar indictment of European genocide against the Cherokee; the band recorded it because the lead vocalist, Mark Linday, self-identified as part Cherokee.

You may remember some of the lyrics:

They took the whole Cherokee Nation
Put us on this reservation
Took away our ways of life…

Took away our native tongue
And taught their English to our young …

It’s perhaps not appropriate to look for analogies when discussing genocide but what was done to the Indigenous people of the Americas is, to my mind, has a visual analogy captured (in a different context) by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath:

The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects .… The iron guard bit into the house-corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house from its foundation so that it fell sideways, crushed like a bug .. The tractor cut a straight line on, and the air and the ground vibrated with its thunder.

One of the crushings was language. The ways it was done we will look at through the eyes of the Makah Nation when we reach what remains of their land at the corner of the Strait of Juan De Fuco and the Pacific Ocean. Here, I just want to sketch out some facts.

When the Europeans first arrived on the continent, there were some 300 different languages being spoken north of the Rio Grande – languages that had evolved in isolation from Europe and Asia for 13,500 years. There is an intuitive disbelief that the Americas could have been isolated for that span of time. But they were: during the last ice age, when sea levels were low, groups of hunter-gatherers took refuge on the ice-free land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. As the ice melted they followed as the animals they hunted migrated south into the Americas – and all were cut off as sea levels rose across the warming world.

These indigenous languages became as complex and subtle as any of the other 7,000 currently spoken around the world. For example, Tlingit, spoken here in the North-West, has 47 consonants, 8 vowels and complex intonation that involves 21 different sounds at the back of the mouth. Like Mandarin, Navajo uses rising and falling tones for different meanings of the same word and also has five sounds made by the way air is moved along the sides of the tongue. Of the many things that give the lie to the Declaration of Independence’s characterisation of Indigenous people as “Indian Savages”, the richness of their languages is one.

One great unanswered question in linguistics is how did all these different languages evolve? What has caused such extraordinary diversity and why? Acquisition of individual words is easy to understand. On the radio a few days ago I heard an Inuit lady, a native speaker of Inuktitut, say, a propos the effect of global warming on the Arctic:

Our winters are shorter. Freezing up of the sea ice is a lot later than it used to be and breaking up of the sea ice is a lot sooner – about a month or more sooner – than it used to be. We have seen robins in our region come up regularly – and even nesting in our region – and we don’t even have a word in our language for robin.

The remark is indicative of the warming in the Arctic that has let orcas in through the pack ice (see Eight – Minnie and the Killer Whale) and also an example of how language – or vocabulary, at least – is shaped by changes in circumstance. for example, until the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan was largely isolated from the world – sealed up by the Tokugawa Shogunate. When the outside world pressed in, after American gunboats insisted, the Japanese needed new vocabulary for things western – so they borrowed words. Today there is an extensive vocabulary of loan words – enerugisshu (energetic) adapted from the German energisch; abekku (romatic couple) from French avec. Not surprisingly, given the British and American occupation of Japan 1945-52, some 90% of such gairaigo are English words made Japanese – karaoke comes from kara meaning empty and oke, from orchestra.

But expansion of vocabulary does not explain linguistic evolution. On the face of it, some obvious factors would seem to be relevant – but a Q&A presented by Professor Michael Gavin undermines such confidence:

  • does geographical size matter? – Papua New Guinea has 900 different languages while Russia (twenty times larger) has only 105.
  • does geographical separation matter? – the island of Makalua is 100 kilometers long and 20 wide and has 40 languages.
  • does population size matter? – 250,000 people on the islands of Vanatu share 110 languages while Bangladesh (with a population 600 times greater) has only 41. [1]

In an attempt to identify some kind of model for language diversity, Professor Gavin and his colleagues conducted a fascinating experiment that postulated Australia as an empty continent with areas of rainfall delineated. He then fed in people whom a computer programme dispersed according to three rules – that people will fill empty spaces; that areas with the most rainfall can sustain higher populations; that groups have an ideal size after which they will separate.

They ran the simulation until the whole of the continent was populated. The computer concluded that an Australia at the time of first contact would have had 407 different languages. In reality, at first contact with Europeans, there were 406 Indigenous languages.

In Australia these days there remain about 50 Indigenous languages actively spoken. In the United States (and including the overspill of linguistic groups north and south in Canada and Mexico) there are 150 survivors – but with numbers of speakers that are rarely encouraging.

In 2016, the United States Census Bureau reported that the Navajo language had 169,369 speakers – with only 0.3 percent saying they spoke Navajo at home. Of these native speakers, 78.8 percent said they also spoke English very well and only 2.2 percent spoke English ‘not at all’. [2]

For the other 149 Indigenous languages, the composte figure is 195,407 speakers with the same percentage, 0.3, saying they spoke a language other than English at home. In this aggregated group, 85.4 said they spoke English ‘very well’ and 0.3 percent ‘not at all’. This second group includes 25,000 Sioux speakers, 12,000 Cherokee, 3,800 Crow, 963 Comanche, 414 Yurok and just 3 Tuscarora speakers.

The future for many of these language may be bleak: perhaps only 20 will survive until 2050. But that may be the pessimistic view. I would like to explore in later posts the ways in which Indigenous groups are fighting to maintain their cultures. Amongst the Makah, a people we are en route to visit, there are many threads in the revival movement – a return to a more traditional diet, for example, to turn back the tide of diabetes and obesity caused by the processed foods that are no part of their culture.


The Lament Of The Cherokee Reservation Indian

– the song was written by John D Loudermilk

The Cherokee language

First lesson in Cherokee

Navajo Code Talkers in the Second World War

The Origins and Evolution of Language

Michael Gavin’s TED talk on cultural diversity and language


[1] Michael Gavin Why do human beings speak so many languages? The Conversation (July 16, 2017)

[2] United States Census Bureau Language Use in the United States: 2011 (issued August 2013)