WASHINGTON – Thousands of languages are threatened with extinction, and the U.S. government is trying to help save some of them, from the one used by Cherokee Indians to a language spoken by a small group of people in Tibet but never written down.
The project awards $4.4 million to 26 institutions and 13 individual scholars to investigate the status of more than 70 languages among the 6,000 to 7,000 in the world.
About half of those languages “are threatened with oblivion,” according to the two U.S. agencies involved in the project.
Organizations in Germany and Britain as well as the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have similar projects.
Every two weeks, on average, the last speaker of a disappearing language dies off, said James Herbert, an adviser to the U.S. project.
“Language is the DNA of a culture. … A lost language is a lost culture,” said Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The agency is working with the National Science Foundation on the current project.
For more than a decade, the endowment has helped pay for the writing of a dictionary of ancient Aramaic. Many Christians believe that Jesus spoke that language, which is related to Hebrew. Modern versions of the language are spoken in a few Middle East villages and used in the services of some Christian denominations.
Science knowledge also can pass when a language dies. For example, Herbert said psychologists can learn something about brain processes from an endangered language of Brazil’s Amazon River area called Piratapuyo. The language is one of the few that reverses the order of words, putting the subject of a sentence at the end rather than the beginning.
Cherokees in the United States claim a population of about 350,000, mostly in North Carolina and Oklahoma. Of these, 22,000 are said to speak the language, written in a script of 86 symbols, each representing a syllable. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, N.C., will get a grant to digitize, translate and assess the written material in the Library of Congress.
One nearly extinct South African language is called N/u. The “/” sign stands for a clicking noise that cannot be represented by the alphabets of America and Europe.
Scientists from Cornell and the North Arizona universities will collect information on how the unusual sounds of this language are produced by the 13 people who still speak it fluently.
Some experts think that such clicks and sucking noises are left from the first languages spoken by humans, tens of thousands of years ago. Surviving languages that use these sounds are concentrated in South Africa. Herbert said experts will puzzle over the question of why the only such language known anywhere else was one in Australia and is now extinct.