Saving Aleut

Saving Aleut Photo Credit: Malcolm Greany [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists can spend a lifetime analyzing the artifacts of a lost civilization, in order to piece together a picture of that ancient culture. But a project now underway aims to document one culture before it's lost. You'll hear about it in this Science Update.


Saving an Alaskan language. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(Aleut conversation)

These are two of the last remaining speakers of Aleut, a language native to Alaska. At one time, more than twenty thousand people spoke the language. Now, only about a hundred fluent speakers remain.

That's why Alice Taff, a linguist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is working to preserve Aleut as it's used in everyday life.


We document songs, lists of vocabulary, and that kind of thing. But it's not often that we see recordings of people talking to each other about nothing, basically.

Over the next two years, her team plans to visit villages where Aleut is spoken and record hundreds of hours of conversations.


It's very community-based, so people will decide what they want to document, who is going to be talking with whom, where we'll go to record various conversations.

The team will transcribe and translate all of the material and make it available on compact discs or DVDs. Taff says preserving the Aleut language also helps preserve the culture for generations to come. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

Television, radio, the Internet, and long-distance transportation have profoundly affected the world's cultures. On the one hand, they provide opportunities for people from very different societies to share everything from ideas and religions to food and music. Yet all this sharing has also blurred cultural distinctions by replacing local culture with blended, homogenized "global" culture.

The replacement of local culture with global culture is especially evident in language. Currently, there are over 6,000 different languages spoken all over the world; there used to be far more. However, about 96% of the world's population speaks only 4% of these languages, and about half of them speak one of the 10 most common languages.

On the other side of the coin, over a quarter of the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, and 10% are spoken by fewer than 100. These small, endangered languages are usually restricted to small geographic areas, and can easily be wiped out. (For example, in some countries, certain languages are subject to fierce political repression.) In many cases, the few remaining native speakers of these languages are mostly older.

With each passing year, the balance keeps on getting more lopsided: more and more people are adopting "global" languages like English and Spanish, which help them communicate with the rest of the world, and abandoning small native languages. It's hard to argue with the convenience of learning English rather than Aleut as your native tongue. But many anthropologists are concerned that the loss of these native languages is a loss of culture and history. That's why scientists like Taff are working to preserve them.

There are many efforts to preserve native languages going on around the world. One aspect of Taff's project that's fairly unique is that it will attempt to preserve the language of ordinary conversation. She and her colleagues will go out into the Aleutian community and record small talk and casual conversation. The idea is that everyday chit-chat has a very different flavor and tone than formal language (just compare your last research paper to your conversation at lunch), and that to ignore the informal expression of the language is to lose a big part of it.

The goal of preserving language isn't just to hold onto pretty artifacts of the past. Language preservationists generally believe that losing language means a loss of inherited knowledge—the kind that is passed on from generation to generation. And inherited knowledge is really what makes human culture unique. We can build on the ideas and innovations of our predecessors, and language is the tool by which that knowledge is passed on. So preserving language is a way of keeping open the lines of communication to our shared history.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is an "endangered" language?
  2. Why are so many languages endangered?
  3. What are the benefits of preserving an endangered language?
  4. Suppose absolutely nobody in the next generation was a native speaker of English. What would be the consequences?
  5. Can you think of other examples of native or local culture that are being threatened by global culture? What, if anything, should be done to preserve them?

For Educators

The Foundation for Endangered Languages is a group dedicated to preserving and raising awareness of endangered languages like Aleut.

The Alaska Native Language Center has information about Alaska's native languages and their speakers, sorted by geographic region.

The Iquito Language Documentation Project is a cooperative effort between the University of Texas and the last 26 living speakers of Iquito, a native language of Peru.

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