Yurok, Endlings, and a Story of Hope

When you think of California, what comes to mind? Many people think of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, surfing, sunshine, and beautiful coastal drives. They rarely consider the native Californians who predated the settlers that came to their land, let alone the languages they speak. If you did a double-take when reading the word “speak” in present tense just now, you’re not alone. Many people, even those who live right in California, are unaware of the many Native Americans who still live in California today. Not only are they still here, but they are actively working to preserve their languages and cultures.

My curiosity in native languages of California was piqued by a wonderful story in the Los Angeles Times this week about a man named Archie Thompson. Thompson was born in 1919, and only just recently passed away. His native language was Yurok, and academics predicted in the 1990s that it would be extinct by 2010. Not only did Thompson outlive their prediction by three years, but he proved them wrong by dedicating his life to revitalizing the language. The Yurok tribe has nearly 6,000 members, making it California’s largest. Today, more than 300 people can speak basic Yurok, 60 have intermediate skills, and 54 people are considered advanced or fluent. The language is now spoken at various public schools in California, including five high schools. While it isn’t fully out of danger yet, it’s certainly on its way – largely thanks to elders like Thompson. The Yurok language revitalization effort is regarded as the most successful in California.

Also this week, I came across a word that I hadn’t heard before, thanks to Lucas Brouwers and Stan Carey, who shared it on Twitter. The word is “endling,” and refers to the last living member of a given species. Once the endling dies, the species is considered extinct. This term really caught my eye. I wondered, is there a word for the last individual user of a given language? I asked the Living Tongues Institute, my favorite source of information on endangered languages. They let me know that the term they usually use is “last speakers,” which is also the name of an excellent book by K. David Harrison. I was unable to find a single word to describe this phenomenon, even though a language dies every 14 days.

So, we have a single word to signify the last individual of an animal species that dies out, but we lack such a word for the last speaker of a language. What does this say about our societal values? People who work in the translation and interpreting fields know how hard it is to get anyone to pay attention to translation, even though it shapes the world around us. Likewise, those who work as language revitalization advocates struggle to help others see why language loss equates to the loss of human knowledge. Unlike the endling of an animal species, language isn’t something you can physically touch or put in a cage. It isn’t easy to point at, showcase, or raise money for language issues.

Yet, stories of language revitalization success – ones like that of Archie Thompson and Yurok – are increasing. This is no doubt due to the tireless work of human beings, but also to the advancement of technology. Thanks to digital audio and video, we can now record languages more easily than ever before, enabling people to appreciate languages not as strange symbols written on a page, but in their full audio-visual glory, complete with human voices and faces. We can now appreciate videos of teenagers performing a rap in Aka, an endangered language from India. We can watch a stunning Discovery Channel video of a young Sami, who explains, in his native language, why reindeer are so important in his culture. We can see a gorgeous online photo gallery of images from National Geographic depicting language warriors from around the world who fight for their mother tongues’ survival.

I love these examples, because they show that technology can not only help us accomplish important feats when it comes to language and translation, but it can make the entire experience more fun, joyful, and beautiful.

And, who knows? Maybe if these kinds of positive efforts continue and gain enough momentum, we won’t have any use for a word like endling after all – at least not where language is concerned.

About Nataly Kelly

Nataly brings nearly two decades of translation industry experience to Smartling, most recently as Chief Research Officer at industry research firm Common Sense Advisory. Previously, she held positions at AT&T Language Line and NetworkOmni (acquired by Language Line), where she oversaw product development. A veteran translator and certified court interpreter for Spanish, she has formally studied seven languages, and is currently learning Irish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, Nataly lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t working, you’ll usually find her translating Ecuadorian poetry, writing books, and exploring the world (36 countries and counting!).