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History's "Global Languages"

Smithsonian Magazine

With nearly one-third of the world's population capable of communicating in English, it might be tempting to think that English is the world's first "global language."

In fact, the idea of a "global language" is older than English itself.

"Latin was the world's first recorded global language, or lingua franca, carried across Western Europe by soldiers and traders in the days of the Roman Empire," says Salikoko Mufwene, a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago. Even after the Empire dissolved, Mufwene says, Latin persisted as the main language in many Western European cities. By the 18th century, each city had added words and phrases to it, leading to a handful of "vulgar Latins." Eventually, these vulgar Latins became modern-day Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

But linguistic researchers believe that Latin, along with Sanskrit, Greek, Slavic and other modern language groups, evolved from a single, older proto-Indo-European language. While there's no written record of this language, scholars suspect it existed around 5000 B.C. in modern-day Turkey or Poland. As the tribe that spoke proto-Indo-European grew, small groups split off and migrated all over Asia and Europe. As they lost touch with one another, these splinter families' languages began to change, and eventually became modern-day Russian, Dutch, Farsi, German, Greek and English, among others.

Several attempts have been made to link the world again through a global language. In the late 19th century, the Polish doctor L. L. Zamenhof coined Esperanto. With its regular structure and common Indo-European vocabulary, Esperanto was meant to be the world's "international language." Although it never caught on as an official language, it has approximately 2 million speakers internationally, as well as conferences and exchange programs.

Exploring Endangered Languages

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

I’m approaching the day when I must leave school and make my way in the world; as a graduate student, I’ve been asking myself on a daily basis, “What am I going to do now that I’ve grown up?” Because I’ve been a student since age six, the prospect of leaving school is a little terrifying.

Luckily, I was able to spend six months interning at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where I had a wide range of duties: I conducted ethnographic research, helped out with regular office tasks, built a Mexican tortilla oven, and moderated at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

One major project I worked on is an online interactive story map, featuring endangered languages around the world, created in connection with the Festival program One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage. I collected photos, videos, and audio files from language communities all over the world, wrote brief informative narratives about the featured groups, and learned about language and culture through detailed field reports and months of research. My academic and ideological interests lie in linguistics and cultural studies, and it was a great experience for me to work on a project that so closely connected language and culture.

One key challenge I faced while compiling materials for the map was determining what content should be included on the map and how. We did not want to misrepresent the cultures featured, and I felt responsible for presenting their languages and cultures in an informative and respectful way. Additionally, with every bit of information we added to the map, there were thousands of interesting and important pieces that were left out.

Anne Pedersen poses with Koro participants (L to R) Ramda Degio, Bhokta Newar, and Sange Mijew in the One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program. Photo by Francisco X. Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution
Anne Pedersen poses with Koro participants (L to R) Ramda Degio, Bhokta Newar, and Sange Mijew in the One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program.
Photo by Francisco X. Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution

While working on the Endangered Languages Story Map was exciting, the most rewarding aspect of working on the One World, Many Voices team was finally meeting all the fantastic culture-bearers that I had encountered through my map research. At the Festival, I worked closely with a delegation of five Koro speakers from Arunachal Pradesh in the northeastern corner of India, facilitating conversation and exchange between the Koro and visitors to the Festival. The Koro-Aka language was not officially acknowledged until 2008, and only about 600 to 800 people speak it.

Despite my research, I did not feel I knew much about this group before presenting with them at the Festival. Every day we spent together we talked about their language, culture, religion, daily life, taste in music, and food. I quickly gained a much better understanding of the Koro people and the connection between their language and culture.

During the Festival, getting visitors engaged with participants was one of the most important challenges I faced. Similar to the issues of representation I tackled while working on the story map, I did not want the Festival visitors to just look at the Koro people’s “otherness” and admire their crafts. I wanted them to interact, communicate, and explore what aspects of our lives are actually quite similar, what our cultural differences are, and why they are important.

Although the One World, Many Voices program focused on endangered languages, many visitors could not grasp what it would be like to lose their language. We spent a lot of time discussing what language means to people and to their culture, which I found enlightening. For those of us who are not at risk of losing our language, I don’t think there is an awareness of how language shapes identity, informs the practice of cultural traditions, and impacts relationships with family and friends.

Meeting culture-bearers and language activists at the Festival helped many visitors think more critically about the intersections of language and culture. It certainly impacted my perspective: I am not a native English speaker, and, though I speak it fluently, I never feel like I’m the same person speaking English and Danish, my mother tongue; I never understood why. This program helped me understand how culture and languages indeed are living, however intangible, pieces of identity, at the core of our existence.

So far, I’ve written a lot about “realizing” and “understanding” things, but boy did the Festival experience create questions as well! How do we present these cultures while meeting the needs and interests of the participants, the Smithsonian, and the audience? What if participants want to sacrifice a living animal on the National Mall as an important part of a cultural tradition performed in their native language? How do we avoid “museumizing” and exhibiting these people? How do we “preserve” a language that is still living, evolving, and transforming? How do we engage participants and visitors effectively?

I am not out in the world beyond my university doors just yet, but after interning on the One World, Many Voices program, the post-student life doesn’t seem that scary anymore, and I know exactly what I will write my master’s thesis about. Working closely with the CFCH team and the culture-bearers at the Festival has given me a lot of ideas about how to work with preserving living cultures—ideas I hope to test myself one day.

Anne Sandager Pedersen is a graduate student at University of Copenhagen, Denmark, pursuing a degree in modern culture and communication. Anne is currently doing further research for the Endangered Languages Story Map, and writing her master’s thesis about how to preserve living cultures through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

The Languages of Peru

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Family activities lead volunteer Tiffany Wilt leads a language lesson in the Wawawasi Kids Corner. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Family activities lead volunteer Tiffany Wilt leads a language lesson in the Wawawasi Kids Corner. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Peru is a country of great linguistic diversity. While Spanish is used widely throughout the country, Peru is also home to more than ninety indigenous languages. Most of these belong to unique language families.

A language family is a group of related languages that developed from a common historic ancestor. For example, English and German belong to the Germanic language family and are believed to have descended from the same earlier language. In addition to Spanish, four different languages are represented at the Folklife Festival’s Perú: Pachamama program: Quechua, Aymara, Kukama, and Wachiperi.


Quechua is the name of both a language and its language family. It is spoken in the highlands of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. With over four million speakers in Peru, it is the most widely spoken indigenous language in the country and was recently granted status as a national language.

Quechua was the principal language of the Inka Empire. The Spanish invaded the Inka in the sixteenth century, but the Quechua language fortunately survived. It has since evolved, and variants of it are still spoken today.

Rimaykullayki – Hello (general greeting)
¿Allillanchu? – How are you?


Aymara has over two million speakers throughout the Andean region in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Along with Quechua, Aymara has official language status in Peru. It is believed that the original homeland of Aymara was Peru and that the language later spread to its neighboring countries.

The three main dialects are Central, Southern, and Jaqaru. The Jaqaru dialect is considered seriously endangered, although it was recently given local official status to aid its preservation. Some linguists suggest that Aymara is related to Quechua because the two languages share many common words, but this claim has yet to be convincingly supported.

Kamisaki – Hello
Kamisasktasa? – How are you?
Jallalla! – Cheer, humor, high spirits, kind regards

Kukama (Kukama-Kukamiria)

Kukama (Kukama-Kukamiria) is a highly endangered language with approximately 250 remaining speakers in Peru. The majority of Kukama speakers are elderly, with many over the age of sixty. The natural transmission of the language has been interrupted by a long history of contact with other linguistic groups, the geographical proximity of Kukama-speaking communities to big cities where Spanish is the dominant language, and the presence of schools with Spanish-only instruction. As a result, many people have shifted to speaking only Spanish.

Fortunately, efforts exist to bring attention to and document Kukama. Radio Ucamara is part of revitalization efforts that celebrate the Kukama language and its people’s unique heritage through storytelling, song, and workshops.

Era na kuema – Have a nice morning
Era na karuka – Have a nice afternoon


Wachiperi is one of seven languages belonging to the Harakbut linguistic family. Of an estimated total population of one hundred, only thirty to forty Wachiperi people still speak or understand the language. With so few speakers, Wachiperi is severely endangered. Due to the small size of the population, mixed marriages are common between Wachiperi and other Amazonian groups or mountain Quechua people who have settled in the area. Parents therefore often speak the common language of Spanish in the home, if they are unable to communicate with their spouses in their Native languages. As a result, many children grow up speaking only Spanish, even though they may hear and understand Wachiperi.

Several members of the Wachiperi community are participants at this year’s Festival. They have brought with them their newly published Wachiperi dictionary and textbooks—the result of a joint project with Peru’s Ministry of Culture to document and preserve the language.

Bahai omiate – Good morning
Mendpa dak momahë? – How are you?

Visit the Folklife Festival’s Perú: Pachamama program to learn more about Peru’s indigenous languages and meet some native speakers.

Sarah Fredrick is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage interested in linguistic and cultural documentation and revitalization. She is a student at the College of William & Mary, where she studies linguistics and psychology.

Saving Peru's Endangered Languages

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
At El Hablador, Wachiperi scholar Nely Margot Ninantay Yonaje (second from left) shared her community's efforts to preserve their language with Danna Gaviota Tello Morey and María Nieves Nashnato Upari from Radio Ucamara. Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinlzer Folklife Archives
At El Hablador, Wachiperi scholar Nely Margot Ninantay Yonaje (second from left) shared her community’s efforts to preserve their language with Danna Gaviota Tello Morey and María Nieves Nashnato Upari from Radio Ucamara. Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinlzer Folklife Archives

As the Perú: Pachamama program opened on the National Mall, the Peruvian Ministry of Education announced a new policy officially recognizing the alphabets of twenty-four indigenous languages. “In this way,” the policy states, “the right of children to be educated in their own native language is respected.”

Some of the participants at the Folklife Festival—speakers of highly endangered languages Wachiperi and Kukama—have been fighting for that right for a long time. Both Kukama and Wachiperi belong to small indigenous communities with long pre-Hispanic histories. To preserve those histories, both communities are actively working to document and spread their languages.

The Wachiperi historically lived in the Madre de Dios River basin in Peru’s southern Amazonian region. Through the 1960s, decades of disease, enslavement, and displacement from their land dramatically decreased the Wachiperi population until only two communities remained: La Comunidad Nativa de Queros and Santa Rosa de Huacaria. Only about one hundred Wachiperi remain, and even fewer speak the language.

Today, many Wachiperi move to cities for work, where they meet and marry members of other ethnic groups. Unable to speak Wachiperi to their spouses, they choose instead to speak Spanish at home. As a result, there are very few children who learn Wachiperi as a first language, even though they may hear and understand it.

“There are fewer and fewer people who can speak Wachiperi fluently,” explains Odette Ramos Dumas, who, having spoken Wachiperi since her early childhood, is a rare exception.

Sofía Solisonquehua Untamay and Odette Marlid Ramos Dumas demonstrated Wachiperi basket weaving traditions at the Festival. Photo by J.B. Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Sofía Solisonquehua Untamay and Odette Marlid Ramos Dumas demonstrated Wachiperi basket weaving traditions at the Festival. Photo by J.B. Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

For the Kukama people living on the banks of the Marañon River in the Amazon, discrimination and industry infringing on their land played a part in endangering their language as well.

“When state public schools came to our area years ago, they prohibited us from speaking our mother language,” says María Nieves Nashnato Upari, a Kukama elder and teacher. “They wanted us to practice speaking only Spanish, and even discouraged us from speaking Kukama at home.”

As a member of the last generation to learn Kukama as a first language, Nashnato believes that teaching children to speak Kukama is the key to keeping the language alive. She helped open the Escuela Ikuari language school seven years ago—with help from indigenous media station Radio Ucamara—to teach Kukama to local children.

“We want the language to live on in our children,” she says. “Then, it is guaranteed to be spoken in the future.” She hopes children will eventually learn Kukama from their parents as a first language again.

Today, the Escuela Ikuari has close to 130 students, including fifteen-year-old Danna Gaviota Tello Morey, who began learning Kukama five years ago. She represented her fellow Ikuari students at the Festival.

“The young people are the future of the country,” Tello Morey said. “If all of the young people are involved in something, it will spread quickly and become well known. That is what I hope will happen with the Kukama language.

“Even though I am still learning, Kukama is part of my home and my identity. I was ridiculed at first for speaking and singing in Kukama, but the criticism only made me want to work harder. I wanted to be a part of a project that is bigger than myself and help save the language of my people.”

Radio Ucamara "broadcasting" in their booth on the National Mall. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Radio Ucamara “broadcasting” in their booth on the National Mall. Photo by Francisco Guerra, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

The Wachiperi also focus on passing their language onto younger generations.

“Even though we are young, we realize how important it is to preserve the songs and stories of our people,” Ramos Dumas says.

Once a week, a local member of the Peruvian Ministry of Culture teaches Wachiperi language lessons. “We can’t just teach vocabulary,” Ramos Dumas insists. “We want to involve them in activities like drawing, painting, and games so that they learn to speak Wachiperi more naturally.”

With help from the Ministry of Culture, Wachiperi elders recently published the first dictionary and textbooks documenting their language. Along with recording Wachiperi words, the books also include standardized pronunciations to help keep the language consistent over time.

Despite the progress both communities have made in recent years, they are by no means finished with their work.

“There is still a lot to do, because the children do not yet speak Wachiperi fluently,” Ramos Dumas says. “We need to have more classes for the children.”

“We’ll need more support for the school so we can continue to educate our children,” Nashnato Upari confirms. To gather some of that support, the Escuela Ikuari created an Indiegogo campaign, Save the Kukama Language, where contributors from all over the world can help fund the school. Visit the page to donate and watch music videos by Tello Morey and other Ikuari students.

With continued dedication within both communities, as well as support from outside—like the Ministry of Education’s plan to include indigenous alphabets in future curricula—there is hope that Wachiperi and Kukama will survive for generations to come. As the Ministry’s announcement explains, “It’s been proven that this is the way [students] can learn better, as they feel more motivated, their cultural identity is respected, and their self-esteem becomes stronger.”

Georgia “Ellie” Dassler is a media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at the College of William & Mary, where she studies anthropology and teaching English to speakers of other languages.

Human Languages Skew Positive

Smithsonian Magazine

A young girl, filled with cheer, marched into American hearts in 1913 through the pages of a book by Eleanor H. Porter. The titular character was Pollyanna, whose name is now synonymous for a person possessing relentless optimism, sometimes to a fault. Pollyanna, an orphan, played the "glad game" by finding something to feel glad about in every situation. The book was a best seller and was into a movie, twice.

In 1969, two researchers took the name even farther to generalize about the human condition: Jerry Boucher and Charles E. Osgood contended that people tend to use positive words more often than negative ones. Now, that work has been updated with the help of big data. A group of researchers combed through Google Books, the New York Times, Twitter, subtitles of books adn movies, music lyrics, and other sources to determine the most commonly used words in 10 major world languages. And they found that the tendency to paint things in a positive light seems to be universal. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

English, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian and Egyptian Arabic all came under scrutiny. Native speakers helped rate the positivity or negativity of each word, and the researchers averaged the scores. Some languages are more "happy" than others, writes Melissa Healy for the Los Angeles Times. Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and English were more positive whereas, Russian, Korean and Chinese were less so — but still more positive than negative.

The challenge is making sure that the samples of words truly reflect the language and oft-used words. The researchers hope that their methods might be applied to see the happiness levels of users across large populations—say for a geographical area, a time period or a particular social network. 

“We're designing our instruments to be of use for policy makers, countries and cities, journalists, businesses and corporations ("how are my products being talked about?") and, of course, interested individuals,” one of the researchers, Peter Sheridan Dodds of the University of Vermont, told Medical Daily. “Our instruments are not just for Twitter and can be used on any large enough text.”

Of course, some are wary of a society full of Pollyannas. "A person who's a Pollyanna according to our current usage is always looking on the bright side and thinking that things will look up, things will get better, and in many cases that's not the case," says Margaret Matlin, a psychologist at SUNY Geneseo who co-wrote a 1979 book called "The Pollyanna Principle," in an NPR interview. The book extends the 1969 hypothesis to suggest that people tend to have trouble seeing the unpleasant because we are keyed into the positive. 

But the positive bias isn’t necessarily extreme. Matlin points out that even the novels of James Joyce and William Blake skew toward the positive. "I don’t think anyone would have called either of them a 'Pollyanna,'" she says.

[Miscellaneous papers relating to American Indian languages]

Smithsonian Libraries
Title supplied by cataloger.

4 titles and 2 folded maps bound together in 1 v.

Papers consist of detached copies and offprints.

Also available online.


Vocabulary of one of the California languages

National Anthropological Archives
In Indo-American Languages form.

Three comparative vocabularies of the Salish languages

National Anthropological Archives
One dated November 15, 1870, Ithaca, New York.

"Sent to Bureau of American Ethnology June 6, 1928 by Franz Boas, had apparently been in his possession for some time."--note on old catalog card.

Part 1 "Comparative Vocabulary of the [Interior] Salish Languages. No date. 47 pages, approximately 180 terms. Comprative vocabulary of the following Salish languages: "Selish proper or Flathead", "Kalispelm" (Kalispel), "Spokan", "Skoyelpi", "Okinaken" (Okanagan), "Schitsui", "Shiwapmukh" (Shuswap), "Piskwaus" (Pisquows). Part 2 " II Series. Comparative Vocabulary of the [Coast] Selish Languages." Ithaca, New York, November 15, 1870. 86 pages, approximately 200 terms. Comparative vocabulary of the following Salish languages: "Clallam", "Lummi", "Nooksahk", (Nootsak), "Nanaimooh" (Nanaimo), "Tait", "Poanhooch or Spokomish", "Noo-so-lupsh", "Skagit", "Komookhs". Part 3 "Synoptical Vocabulary of the [Interior and Coast] Selish languages (comprising the languages which are more exclusively treated in the 2nd Series of Comparative Vocabulary....)." No date. 16 pages, approximately 190 terms. Comparative vocabulary of the following Salish languages: "a) Clallam", "b) Lummi", "c) Nooksahk" (Nottsak), "d) Nanaimooh" (Nanaimo), "e) Kwantlen", "f) Tait", "g) Toanhooch", "h) Noosolupsh", "i) Skagit", "k) Komookhs" (Comox), "l) Kwinaiutl", "m) Cowlitz", "n) Chemakum", "o) Belhoola (Bella Coola), "p) Lilowat", "q) Nikutemukh" (Couteaux or Samena) "Nikutemukh," "a name corrupted by the Canadians into Couteaux, also called Samena."--cf. Gibbs' notes, Manuscript Number 742.

Alphabet for writing the Dakota languages 1881

National Anthropological Archives
Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Old number 1413 (part)

Found with letters to J. W. Powell, 1878-1879.

typescript and autograph document

Numerals expressed in Siouan languages

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Old number 1483 (part)

typescript and autograph document

Truman Michelson notes on various Algonquian languages, undated

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Title changed from "Various verbal tables of different Algonquian tribes" 4/14/2014.

Truman Michelson's handwritten linguistic notes with paradigms (some extracted from the literature) for the following languages: Montagnais, Menominee, Meskwaki (Fox), Cree, Natick, Ojibwa, Passamaquoddy, and Shawnee.

Edward Sapir notes on vocabularies of Algonquian languages, circa 1911

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Apparently sent by Sapir to Truman Michelson (see 28th A.R., BAE, page 225 and ff).

Title changed from "Vocabularies" 5/1/2014.

Edward Sapir's typed notes on the vocabularies of various Algonquian languages that he collected in 1911. List of languages covered: Delaware, pages 1-6; Abnaki (Pierreville), page 7-12; Malecite (Riviere du Loup, Thomas Paul), pages 13-17; Micmac, pages 18-23, Cree (Rupert's House), pages 24-25; Montagnais (Louis Clairie, Pointe Bleue), pages 26-28. There are annotations and corrections in ink in Sapir's handwriting (identified by Mary Haas, 4/58). There are also pencil additions signed by Michelson; perhaps all of the pencil additions are his.

Comparative vocabularies of Southeastern and Gulf Languages 1916-1917

National Anthropological Archives
According to Bureau of American Ethnology-AR 38, pages 5-6, Swanton worked on a comparative vocabulary of these languages in 1916-1917.

typescript and autograph document

Contents: "Key to Comparative vocabularies," a numerical key to English equivalents of the Indian terms in the vocabularies. Typescript and autograph document. 2 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Natchez, Tunica, Chitimacha, and Attacapa. Autograph document. 22 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Creek, Choctaw, Alabama, and Hitchiti. Autograph document. 23 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Tonkawa, Comecrudo, Coahuilteco, Cotoname, and Karankawa. Autograph document. 22 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Koasati, Creek, Hitchiti, Alabama, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez. Typescript and autograph document. 2 pages. Comparative vocabulary of Timucua and other Southeastern languages. Typescript and Autograph document. 19 pages. Comparison of Natchez vocabulary, phonology and structure with other Muskhogean languages. Typescript Document with A. notations. 57 cards.

Spatial frames of reference in Mesoamerican languages

Smithsonian Libraries
This article presents the conceptual and methodological framework for the special issue Frames of reference in Mesoamerican languages, which reports on the use of frames of reference (FoRs) in eight Mesoamerican languages and two non-Mesoamerican control languages. The papers included here are a result of the ongoing collaborative project Spatial language and cognition in Mesoamerica. This article provides a background to the study of FoRs, the research methodology used cross-linguistically, the classification that serves as the basis for the coding of cross-linguistic data, and a preview of the articles in the special issue.

Five Lost Languages Rediscovered in Massachusetts

Smithsonian Magazine

American history has just been slightly rewritten. Previously, experts had believed that the Native Americans of central Massachusetts spoke a single language, Loup (pronounced “Lou,” literally meaning “wolf”). But new research shows that they spoke at least five different languages.

“It's like some European families where you can have three different languages at the dinner table,” says Ives Goddard, curator emeritus and senior linguist in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “There was probably a lot of bilingualism. A question that is raised by there being so many languages is 'how did that work?' How did they manage to maintain five different languages in such a small area?”

The lost languages were re-discovered by taking another look at several manuscripts written by French missionaries who were also working as linguists in the mid 1700s. While working on her master's thesis at the University of Manitoba, Holly Gustafson compiled lists of verb forms found in one of the manuscripts. Goddard noticed some contradictions in the compilation.

“In the course of doing this [Gustafson] sometimes says there's this set of forms that is this way and another set of forms another way,” says Goddard. The fact that there were three different words recorded for beaver was also suspicious. “And I looked at this and thought there is too much difference. That made me think that there was more than one language involved,” he says.

In the wake of King Phillip's War in the 1670's, many groups of Native Americans were displaced. “The English basically weren't too good at differentiating between their friends and enemies in battle,” says Goddard. “The ones who were still farther away in the interior trying to live a more traditional life, they just left.”

People who had lived in central Massachusetts fled to upstate New York where they stayed in villages and the refugees encountered the French missionaries who also studied their languages. By then, the tribes had been badly reduced by war and disease. The survivors were too few to maintain unique cultural identities as they integrated with other tribes. Their languages quickly disappeared.

But how could five distinct languages have been maintained in such a small region?

“This gives us a picture of the aboriginal situation in New England being fragmented into different groups,” says Goddard. “This tells us something about the social and political situation.”

Goddard believes that the situation may have been similar to that of the Sui people of the Guizhou Province of China. Women from a particular band of villages would always marry into a different band of villages in which a different language was spoken. The woman would continue to speak her original dialect, her husband would speak another, while their children would grow up understanding both but primarily speaking the father's dialect outside of the home. Family and cultural ties are maintained between the different groups of villages while maintaining an independent sense of identity.

Goddard's research begs the question of how many other native American languages may have been missed. The cultural diversity of pre-colonial America may have been underestimated. Rediscovering those languages can help to explain where the lines were drawn between different cultures.

UPDATE 5/17/2016: A previous version of this article reported that the Massachusetts refugees remained in camps in upstate New York. They were living in villages.

Keeping Endangered Languages and Culture Alive

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Since I was young I’ve always had an interest in languages. My first semi-immersive experience with another language was when my family and I travelled to Turkey in the summer of 2001. Everyone was astounded at how quickly I picked up essential vocabulary for daily adventures. Of course now I can appreciate that it was because I was only eight years old, and it was easier for me to learn pieces of a language. Still, I remember thinking how obnoxious it was that everyone was so impressed. Why weren’t they trying harder? I think maybe I was embarrassed to be an outsider in this incredible country. I also felt like it was my duty to learn how to say a few words in Turkish because there was no other way to interact with people there. It seemed disrespectful not to make an effort. Besides, it was amazing to be able to speak a little of this secret code previously unknown to me!

I realize now that it is not so simple to just pick up a few words and call it a day. Even that can be a difficult task for a lot of people. However, I still decided to feed my interest and pursue a major in linguistics at Boston University because to me, it is imperative to be aware of the importance of language diversity since it provides a lens into the larger umbrella of cultural diversity, hence my interest in interning for a program about endangered languages.

Around the world, communities are working to preserve linguistic multiplicity, and these efforts contribute to expanding the opportunities for communication and enabling people to better understand world views and knowledge systems different from their own. Various aspects of one language may ask that a speaker or listener attend to details of the world that another language may not require.

This can mean features built into words themselves, the way words are used, or even the existence of words in some languages that others need not bother with. For example, the Kallawaya people of Bolivia have an extensive terminology for assorted plants used for medicinal purposes. These plants have a deep cultural significance for them that is probably not shared among many American English speakers. And while the English language has specific words for such examples of modern technology as “car” and “telephone,” there are no such one-word direct terms in the Siletz Dee Ni language of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon. Consequently, Siletz speakers have developed more lengthy descriptions to refer to such items—for example, a “car” is referred to as a thing that runs over the ground.

Working with the upcoming 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program has helped me to appreciate the bounty of possible linguistic features and hopefully it will help Festival-goers in the same way. The Kalmyk or Siletz Dee Ni, Passamaquoddy or Native Hawaiian languages reflect the culture and experiences of their speakers. I have had the incredible opportunity to cull through fieldwork and learn about the lives of people whose invaluable cultures and languages are at risk of extinction.

My main task was to organize an interactive story map to be featured on the Folklife Festival Web site – searching for compelling video, audio, and images to offer visitors a taste of a language and culture and hopefully develop a hunger to discover more. It is interesting to consider language in relation to a map since geography plays an important role in shaping one’s identity and world view. For example, the Amazonian Pirahã tribe does not have words to express specific numbers, but they instead use words that communicate estimates. They can see how many of something there are just as well as I can, but their lifestyle, based in a rural setting, does not dictate such precision.

To me, the most logical way to comprehend a word is to broaden it to more of a concept, rather than a concrete, one word, universal meaning. Verb-centric languages like Passamaquoddy use words that imply action and describe how something is done, rather than just a thing or an idea. Additionally, when speakers of gendered languages are asked to describe feminine nouns, they tend to use more stereotypically feminine characteristics and describe masculine nouns with masculine characteristics.

One World, Many Voices will raise awareness of the importance of diversity in language, culture, and thought, and to the role of language in a person’s identity and world view. Working on this program has validated the importance of studying linguistics for me personally and given me an incredible opportunity to assist in presenting this to everyone who visits the Festival and our Web site. Several of these endangered languages are starting to be taught again to the next generation and revitalized. May the trend continue!

Eliot Reiniger is an intern for the One World, Many Voices program at the 2013 Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He is an undergraduate student at Boston University studying linguistics and is spending his spring semester studying German and linguistics in Dresden.

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