Endangered languages as the next cool lingo?

Jul 5, 2011 by

As we discussed in an earlier posting, people often perceive the changes in language due to technology (computers, texting, the Internet, etc.) in a very negative light. But there may actually be some positive effects to texting and other modern technologies. Case in point: teenagers in South and Central America using dying languages as a “cool” code.

According to Samuel Herrera, who runs the linguistics laboratory at the Institute of Anthropological Research in Mexico City, young people in southern Chile produce hip-hop videos and post them on YouTube using Huilliche, a language on the brink of extinction. Similarly, teenagers in Mexico think it’s “cool” to send text messages in regional endangered languages, such as Huave.

Overall, these languages aren’t doing too well. According to UNESCO’s list of endangered languages, Huilliche with its 2000 speakers is listed as a “critically endangered language”, meaning that “the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently”. Varieties of Huave in Mexico are listed in different categories, from “vulnerable” (meaning “most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains such as the home”, e.g., San Mateo del Mar Huave, with 12,667 speakers), to “definitely endangered” (meaning “children no longer learn the language as a ‘mother tongue’ in the home”, e.g., San Dionisio del Mar Huave with 5,165 speakers), to “severely endangered (meaning “language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves”, e.g., Santa María del Mar Huave with 862 speakers), to “critically endangered” (e.g., San Francisco del Mar Huave with 6,874 speakers).

So why are teenagers using these dying languages on the Internet and in their text messages? As soon as text messaging exploded on the world stage, young people began to look for a way to make it more exclusive and develop their own code or doublespeak. First, shorthand and abbreviations became a popular way to keep the “inside joke” of LOL, or “laughing out loud,” and brb, or “be right back,” within the circle. In time, though, these catchphrases reached a broader audience, losing their cache and exclusivity. They even made it into the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. And as soon as the use of such abbreviations became widespread and commercial, the code was no longer “cool”. And so youngsters turn to endangered languages for the next “cool” code.

This underscores our human need for creativity and for using language as a means for social (self-)identification. Since time immemorial, children and teenagers have been inventing “secret languages” like Pig Latin or Verlan. What is new about this recent phenomenon is that a natural language, with all its complexities and quirks is being used instead of a simple, artificially-created system of communication based on an existing natural language understood by outsiders (such as English or French).

In a sense, the adoption of a discarded language makes perfect sense, to keep texting’s cachet among teens exclusive. Something as simple as text messaging can draw young people’s attention back to the languages of their elders, and projects like the YouTube channel’s “Enduring Voices” can inspire others to learn ancestral tongues to produce hip-hop music.

And we linguists are pleased that dying languages are helping teens communicate, because it keeps the languages alive in the process. Samuel Herrera is happy to find this naturally occurring, albeit somewhat unconventional, solution to the problem of dying native tongues: “This really strengthens the use of the language”, he said in an interview. According to Dr. Gregory Anderson, the director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon, somewhere between the ages of six and 25, people make a definitive decision whether or not to say to stay or break with a language. Therefore, young people need to be the ones reviving a dying language. “If the language isn’t being used by their peer group, then they reject it categorically”, Anderson concluded.

Thus, despite what many people might think, texting may prove a positive force in saving some endangered languages, if only for a time (until these languages lose their “cool”).

One other point that I would like to stress here is that for any endangered language to be “revived”, it must capture the imagination of the younger generation. This is the lesson we learn time and again from such projects as the revival of Celtic languages in the UK and Ireland, Yiddish revival, the “revival” (or “reinvention”) of Modern Hebrew and other language maintenance and revival projects around the world.

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