Image: Enduring Voices team in India
Chris Rainier / Enduring Voices
The Enduring Voices team documents an endangered language in Arunachal Pradesh, India.
By Senior writer
updated 2/18/2012 3:54:47 AM ET 2012-02-18T08:54:47

Many of the world's minority languages, some spoken by only a handful of speakers, are on the brink of extinction, and community activists and scientists are teaming to try to keep them alive.

One example is the Native American language Siletz Dee-ni, which was once spoken widely by native people in Oregon, but which now may be spoken fluently by only one man: Alfred "Bud" Lane.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

"We're a small tribe on the central Oregon coast," Lane said via telephone here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Like most small groups of people, our pool of speakers has been reduced over a period of time, until the 1980s when very few speakers were left. Linguists labeled it 'moribund.'" [Q&A: Dead Languages Reveal a Lost World]

But Lane and his community decided to fight back.

Talking dictionaries
"We devised a plan to go forward and begin teaching our dialect on the reservation," Lane said. Now schoolchildren in the Siletz Valley School learn Siletz Dee-ni two days a week. Lane said they're picking it up faster than he ever hoped.

Still, the coast isn't clear. Whether Siletz Dee-ni can become spoken well enough, and by a large enough group of people to continue being used in daily life, remains to be seen.

"Language extinction is not an inevitability, although it is a very strong trend that is going on right now," said K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College who worked with Lane to assemble an online talking dictionary of more than 14,000 words in the Siletz Dee-ni language.

The dictionary, sponsored by National Geographic's Enduring Voices project and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, is just one of many records that linguists are compiling to preserve the world's dwindling collection of endangered languages before it's too late.

What we stand to lose
As native peoples assimilate more and more into the dominant cultures around them, and as younger generations grow up speaking dominant languages like English in school and with their peers, fewer and fewer people are becoming fluent in native tongues. In the past, government repression of native languages and ethnic shame has also seriously hindered the survival of these languages, researchers on a panel here said.

Image: Bud Lane
Ecotrust
Bud Lane works to preserve the customs and language of the Siletz tribe on the central Oregon coast.

But if the world loses these languages, it loses more than just another way of saying the same thing, experts argue.

There is a "vast knowledge base, knowledge of plants, animals, how to live sustainably, that is contained uniquely in those languages," Harrison said. "We are all enriched when small language communities choose to share their knowledge."

Studying the languages also teaches linguists new language patterns, and helps preserve other elements of native culture such as foods and traditions.

Teetering on the brink
But what does it take for a threatened language to stay alive?

Margaret Noori, a professor at the University of Michigan and a speaker of Ashininaabemowin, the native language of the Ojibwe people indigenous to the Great Lakes area, not only speaks the native language, she also sings and writes poetry in Ashininaabemowin. [Recording: Ashininaabemowin Song]

"For it to be considered alive, we need to be creating in it," Noori told LiveScience. "Otherwise it's like studying Latin."

Noori teaches Ashininaabemowin language classes at the University of Michigan, and runs a website, Ojibwe.net, to collect recordings of Ashininaabemowin speakers. She also harnesses social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to spread the word about the language.

Still, despite the hard efforts of many people, the continued survival of Ashininaabemowin is not assured.

"If I'm honest, statistically, I'd say it doesn't look very good," Noori said. She estimates there are fewer than 15,000 speakers of the language left, and possibly as few as 5,000. Eighty percent of Anishinaabemowin speakers are older than 65.

Despite the odds, though, she and other native language advocates don't plan to give up.

"We have a whole new generation of people coming up that sing our songs, learn our traditions," Lane said. "We were teetering on the brink, and I think we've finally turned the corner and reversed that now."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. For more science news, follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: The 2012 Weird Science Awards

  • Our annual Weird Science Awards pay tribute to the strangest scientific tales of the past year, and you just know the 2012 edition had to be a doozy. While we're waiting for the Maya apocalypse — and we may be waiting a long, long time — let's count down the top 10 Weird Science stories, as determined by an ironically unscientific Live Poll.

    No. 10 is the discovery that having a painful need to urinate can impair your judgment. "When people reach a point when they are in so much pain they just can't stand it anymore, it was like being drunk," says Brown University neurologist Peter Snyder. "The ability to hold information was really impaired." To say nothing of the ability to hold water.

    The research won Snyder and his colleagues a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes, which honor science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think. Watch Snyder explain the study in this YouTube video, then click the "Next" button for more laugh-provoking science — or scroll quickly all the way down to the bottom if you have a painful need to go.

    — Alan Boyle, msnbc.com science editor

  • 9. Flies hooked on meth ... and sugar

    Image: Fruit fly
    Botaurus via Univ. of Illinois
    Researchers have found that the fruit fly is a useful model organism for studying the whole-body effects of methamphetamine exposure.

    When researchers noticed that meth addicts often take in large amounts of sugary drinks, they decided to do a little experiment: First, they got fruit flies hooked on methamphetamine. Then the scientists fed some of the flies a diet heavy on trehalose, an insect blood sugar. They found that the sugar-gobbling flies outlived the flies who didn't get the sweet stuff. Maybe sugar metabolism plays a role in meth's toxic effects. "Hopefully, some of these insights might lead to opportunities to deal with the problems associated with the drug," says University of Illinois toxicologist Barry Pittendrigh. But more research is required to trace the effects on mammals. In the meantime, watch out for those meth-head fruit flies.

  • 8. Monster pictures make a splash

    Courtesy of Discovery News
    A photo from a video that claims to show Alaska's own version of a sea monster.

    2011 saw a double-header (so to speak) in the marine-monster category. The most popular Loch Ness monster-like picture came from Alaska, where Andy Hillstrand of the "Deadliest Catch" TV show captured the footage for the Discovery Channel. Some might suggest that the creature is an eel, or a fish, or even a trick of light on the water. Not Hillstrand. "I've never seen anything like it," he told Discovery News. He suspects that the picture shows a Cadborosaurus, a legendary beast that has long been said to frequent Alaska's waters. Meanwhile, another picture purporting to show a creature that's been nicknamed "Bownessie" made waves in England.

  • 7. Glowing dog has an on-off switch

    Image: Glow-in-the-dark paw
    Lee et al. / Genesis
    Photos demonstrate the inducible glow-in-the-dark effect in a genetically modified dog: The left images shows the dog's paw in normal light (upper left) and under ultraviolet light (lower left) after doxycycline is added to the dog's food. The right-hand images show the dog's paw in normal and ultraviolet light after scientists stopped administering the drug.

    In past years, our Weird Science Award winners have included glow-in-the-dark kitties and glow-in-the-dark puppies. How could scientists possibly top that? Would you believe a dog with a gene that turns the fluorescence under UV light on or off, depending on whether a particular drug is added to its food? That's exactly the kind of dog that South Korean scientists produced in 2011. Why, you ask? Well, the ultimate aim of these glow-in-the-dark exercises is to splice in genes that can help treat diseases — and having an on-off switch would give physicians more control over the treatment. That feat would make other researchers turn green ... with envy.

  • 6. Just this once, Samoa skips a Friday

    Image: (FILE PHOTO) Samoa Cancels December 30th As Islands Skip Over The International Dateline
    Hannah Johnston  /  Getty Images
    Samoa and New Zealand-administered Tokelau skip a day as they jump over the international date line in an attempt to improve trade and tourism.

    For more than a century, Samoa was on one side of the International Date Line, and Australia and New Zealand were on the other. When the Samoans were at Sunday church, the Aussies were starting their business week on Monday. And when Samoa was trying to finish up its own business week, the Kiwis were settling into the weekend. To remedy that, the Samoans switched over to the Australia-New Zealand side in 2011, going directly from Thursday, Dec. 29, to Saturday, Dec. 31. To top it all off, workers were paid for the non-existent Friday. If only we could all get to the weekend that quickly ... and spend it on a tropical island.

  • 5. Pole shift forces airport makeover

    Might as well face reality: Shift happens. Earth's shifting magnetic poles are not a sign of the apocalypse. They're just a fact of life on our dynamic planet. We do have to cope to the shift that life throws at us, though. For example, in early 2011, Tampa's airport had to repaint the numbers on its runways to reflect their shifting orientation with respect to magnetic north. The good news is that even dramatic changes in the poles' position would have no effect on life on Earth, despite what the doomsday prophets say.

  • 4. Corpse-dissolving machine invented

    "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." Does that old saying apply to building a better corpse-dissolving machine as well? Resomation Ltd. hopes so. The Scottish company installed its machine in a St. Petersburg, Fla., funeral home and hopes the system will be legalized in other jurisdictions. The alkaline hydrolysis unit liquefies a body's soft tissues and flushes the sterile liquid into the municipal water system. The bones and other hard parts are left behind to be crushed. Company founder Sandy Sullivan says the machine lets people express their environmental concerns "in a very positive and I think personal way." Sounds good, as long as they don't put a Soylent Green factory next door.

  • 3. Preacher gets doomsday wrong ... twice!

    First, figure out exactly when Noah's Ark was floated by the Flood, and exactly when Jesus was crucified. Then come up with an arcane biblical numerology to add 7,000 years to the former, and 722,500 days to the latter. That was California preacher Harold Camping's formula for determining that May 21 was the date for the beginning of an apocalyptic Rapture. When May 21 didn't work out, he said Oct. 21 was the fallback date for the end of the world. And when that didn't work out ... well, now Camping says he's rethinking this whole doomsday business. But what about the 2012 apocalypse? That's too kooky, even for Camping. "Mr. Camping does not believe the Mayan calendar holds any significance at all," a spokeswoman says. Camping's mathematical acumen earned him a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes.

  • 2. 'Aflockalypse' is for the birds

    Image: A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas,
    Warren Watkins/The Daily Citizen  /  EPA
    A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas.

    The year 2011 was rung in with a series of reports about mass die-offs, involving blackbirds (the so-called "Aflockalypse" in Arkansas), fish, crabs and other creatures. Some wondered whether a global environmental crisis was in the offing, but experts said the Aflockalypse was simply a case of people connecting the dots between unrelated events, facilitated by global communication systems. Die-offs can happen for a variety of reasons. The Arkansas blackbird deaths, for example, took place after the birds were spooked by New Year's Eve fireworks. And wouldn't you know it? The Aflockalypse happened again to kick off 2012.

  • 1. Fungus turns ants into zombies

    David P. Hughes
    A dead ant, after being zombified by a species of parasitic fungus. The brain-controlling fungus turns ants into zombies that do the parasite's bidding before it kills them.

    If books like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and video games like "Resident Evil" can generate billions of dollars in sales, it shouldn't be surprising that the top Weird Science honors go to a story about zombie ants being taken over by a brain-controlling fungus. The fungus apparently uses temperature cues to decide when to have the ant clamp down on a cool leaf with a death grip. Pennsylvania State University's David Hughes speculates that the fungus does its thing to ensure it "has a long cool night ahead of it, during which time it can literally burst out of the ant's head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk." It's the perfect plot for a horror movie directed by one mean mother: Mother Nature.

  • Honorable (?) mention

    Other weird tales that almost made the top 10:

    Does 13th zodiac sign mean your horoscope is wrong?
    Was the Shroud of Turin created in a blinding flash?
    Science reveals how to win at 'Rock, Paper, Scissors'

    Previous Weird Science winners:

    Cricket testicles and 2011's other Weirdies
    Kinky fruit bats and other Weirdies from 2010
    2,700-year-old marijuana and other 2009 Weirdies
    Glow-in-the-dark kitties and other Weirdies from 2008

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments