Endangered languages are closer to home than you thought

In 2012, Google sponsored the Endangered Languages Project (ELP) – an umbrella for a number of separate archives looking to provide written documentation for as many endangered languages as it can. People can submit their own resources to the page, be it as text, audio or video files, in the hope that it will raise awareness and build knowledge of languages which were once on the verge of never being spoken again.

The endangered languages of Britain

The ELP identifies three languages in mainland Britain as being endangered: Scottish Gaelic (spoken by around 30,000 people), Welsh (spoken by 580,000 people) and Cornish, which had been considered extinct until 2010 and is currently spoken by 557 people. All three are languages covered by us here at London Translations. 

Welsh, whilst fluently spoken by around 16% of the country’s population, it remains a minority language. It is without its own newspaper, and has not appeared on any newly-minted British currency for over 20 years.

The Welsh language is not without its champions in popular culture, however. Last year, musician Gwenno Saunders put out an album entitled Y Dydd Olaf, whose songs were sung entirely in Welsh, except its final track which is sung in Cornish.

Saunders has been outspoken about preserving those languages for future generations, noting in one interview that institutions such as a Cornish language nursery is one of the “small battles that are being won.”

Bringing languages back from extinction

The rock band Super Furry Animals were commended in parliament for their record Mwng, released in 2000, which is the best-selling album of all time in Welsh. Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys has used his status as a cult musician to raise awareness of the Welsh language, as well as other endangered tongues.

In his documentary film American Interior, he travels to North Dakota in the United States to meet a Native American named Dr. Edwin Benson – a linguistics professor in his eighties, and the last man to speak the language of the Mandan tribe. “Meeting the physical manifestation of a dying language in one person was incredibly moving,” Rhys told The Guardian.

As with many others who speak languages on the verge of extinction, Benson is taking every opportunity to spread his linguistic, cultural and historical knowledge to younger generations. Although bilingualism can benefit people on a psychological level, if “hidden” languages such as Mandan are lost, so too are a wealth of information about the way people used to live – from ancient customs to traditional folk stories.

It also seems as if young people are receptive towards actively learning about their heritage, whether it be in Cornwall or on a Reservation in Midwestern America. “It was very inspiring getting to meet the young people who are very optimistic about the future,” Gruff Rhys said to NPR about the future of Mandan.“And who are actively revitalizing the language through education and history.”

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