(Almost) Forgotten Languages

Does anybody speak Latin anymore? What about Gaelic? Or Navajo? Languages change rapidly and are quietly disappearing all the time. So here are some languages you might be surprised to learn are still alive and well.

Many of us know Latin as the godmother of romance languages, which include Italian, Spanish, French, and English (half of it, anyway). But does anyone still speak it? Latin is still the official language of the Vatican, but even there, Italian is more commonly spoken. In fact, when the pope resigned in 2013, many Cardinals weren’t sure what he had actually said, as their Latin wasn’t exactly fluent. So is the Pope basically the only speaker of Latin? Maybe not. Even after the fall of Rome, Latin persisted. While it fell out of general use for good by the 18th century, it was an essential tenet of classical education well into the 20th century. And some educators still teach it. Latin is a way to better understand our own language, and a way to participate in a sort of living history of the western world.

As it happens, there is actually more than one form of Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and the form of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known simply as Irish. It is important to remember that these are two different languages. But do people still speak them? According to recent census data, 59,000 Scottish people reported the ability to speak Gaelic, compared with 1.77 million Irish people who reported that they could speak Irish. The difference can most likely be attributed to the fact that Irish Language is a standard part of the school curriculum in Ireland. Both countries are, by and large, monolingual English speakers, but many in Scotland and Ireland are eager to preserve their national languages, which are precious to the cultures of each. For example, Gaelscoileanna, schools which are taught entirely in Irish, have become much more popular in recent years. These schools help to preserve and promote new generations of native Irish speakers.

It’s unfortunately true that many languages of North America’s many Native American Nations have been all but forgotten. And yet some of these languages have survived despite everything (including attempted cultural obliteration). Among the surviving languages is Navajo, by far the most widely spoken of North America’s many Native American languages. According to a recent census, there are currently 169,000 Navajo speakers, most of whom are concentrated in the areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

The Hawaiian language is not to be confused with Hawaiian Pidgin [link to pidgin article], which is a language born of the many languages spoken by peoples who had at one point or another been displaced to Hawaii. Hawaiian is the language of the people native to Hawaii, and its influence can be seen all over the islands. In fact, you probably know at least two well-known Hawaiian words: Aloha and Mahalo! According to census data, Hawaiian is the fifth most commonly spoken language in Hawaii.

Australian Aboriginal
When settlers first arrived in Australia, there were over 250 aboriginal languages spoken. Today, all but 20 of these languages have died out or been forgotten. Of those that remain, there are three major language groups, Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiriri, and Arrernte, which retain strong footholds only in the most remote areas of the continent. There are an estimated 3000 speakers of Warlpiriri and Arrernte each, and perhaps 5000 speakers of Pitjantjatjara. While the 20 languages that persist are in some danger of also disappearing forever, there have been concerted efforts made by linguists to preserve them. Bilingual schools taught primarily in an aboriginal language are one such effort, as well as the Central Australian and Media Association radio and Imarja TV, which broadcasts some programs in local, indigenous languages.

Known as the language of the Bible, Aramaic was once the major language used all over the Middle East. Today, it’s speakers are few and scattered across the globe. But they exist. Aramaic is a Semitic language, related both to Hebrew and Arabic. Speakers of Aramaic are Middle Eastern Christians, Jewish communities, and Mandeans. Unfortunately, like many of the 7000 languages currently spoken across the globe, Aramaic is expected to die out by the end of the century.

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