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Salvaging the Dormant: On Language

by | January 16, 2018

‘Tamil will die a slow death

The languages of the West will triumph in this world.’

So says the simpleton;

Alas! what an accusation!

—Subramania Bharati



I. We live among the ghosts of languages.

Here in Philadelphia, the streets are named for and in tongues no longer spoken: Delaware, Susquehanna, Shackamaxon. Their shadows can be spotted by those who know where to look – in place names and loanwords – but the languages themselves have faded, and with them bodies of knowledge have been lost that cannot be recaptured.

Languages, like living creatures, evolve over great stretches of time. With each schism and catastrophe – each war, each conquest, each flight from danger or famine – they adapt or fade or die. Some are strangled by dominant languages that spread over new lands like kudzu vines. Some are deliberately murdered. Most fade slowly, their speakers switching languages to assimilate and become employable, to gain social status, to escape persecution or forget a traumatic past.

Most languages die.

Languages are born this way, too, emerging from the cracks and cleavages left by trauma. When those who leave their homes stay together, their language can split off, evolving with each isolated community down a different pathway. New dialects arise – United States Vietnamese, Pittsburgh Hungarian, Pennsylvania ‘Dutch’ – their vocabularies – like the technology of Pennsylvania German’s Anabaptist separatists – frozen, for a while, in time.

Languages mix and blend; the pidgins concocted to provide enough communication to trade or harvest crops congeal into creoles with their own laws of grammar, their own ways of capturing the world. This is, after all, what languages are: human creations, human tools. Language is a way to interpret the world – and, sometimes, a way to change it.

Declaring a language ‘dead’ is a tricky business.

The death of a language is not like the death of a human being. It’s true that there is a certain permanence to it. When the last native speaker dies – and then the last fluent speaker, then the last of those who remember bits and pieces – something has slipped away forever. If, however, the language has left a trace, a footprint clear enough to measure and cast, there is still some possibility of salvage.

When a language loses its living speakers, the work of reconstructing it is often referred to as ‘salvage linguistics’ – though this term too is contested. ‘It sounds like desperation. It brings to mind salvaging a shipwreck’, says linguist Sarah Grey Thomason[1], ‘grim and negative and final and hopeless’. Rebekah Ingram, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at Carleton University, adds that outsiders from a settler group must be cautious about relegating to ‘salvage’ any language or culture that has been violently suppressed and colonised. The term itself conveys loss but assigns no responsibility for that loss.

Indeed, if salvage conjures Robinson Crusoe salvaging from the wreckage enough to survive, those socialists who came of age ‘in the wilderness’, watching the wreckage of the Old Left wash up on the beach, may see, if not a parallel, perhaps an analogy with our own ways of speaking about politics – and thus of shaping it.



II. To speak of salvage in politics is to declare the left dead.

The right and centre, of course, do this so often that it’s easy to feel like Tom Sawyer eavesdropping on the mourners at his own funeral: ‘Well, Tom Sawyer he licked me once.’ But from our own side, in our own tongue? It is easier to use the political tools we are handed, the postmodern rhetoric of ‘social justice’ and ‘privilege’, than to attempt to resurrect the rare and unfashionable terminology of solidarity, fraught as it is with the baggage of a century of defeats and betrayals, the weight of capital-C Communism and of anticommunism alike. Yet a language provides not only ways of saying but ways of knowing: its unique linguistic features, for example, can offer startling insights into how we categorise and parse the world around us.

But if we hesitate to pronounce the death of a language while its heritage is still carried by living, breathing people capable of fighting for their existence, perhaps, suggests Zoe Todd, a doctoral candidate in social anthropology and an Indigenous Canadian (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak), we should hesitate to bury the left as well. ‘Languages take on new forms’, she says, when there is still life in them; their speakers update them, shaping a new lexicon for a changed world. ‘If we want to build things that are strong, that work – whether that means living languages tied to culture and identity or effective and intersectional political movements – we have to value them and one another and treat them with tenderness’. To say that languages are worth saving, to value something that is accorded no value in the profit system, is itself a radical act in the neoliberal era.

Linguistic deaths and migrations and meldings follow the course of history: its cruelties and killings, marriages and births. Crushing a people, as every conqueror knows, almost always involves crushing a language. ‘One of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language’, as Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin tell us in The Empire Writes Back. The students of Johannesburg knew this in 1976 when they objected to being instructed in Afrikaans, which had become the language of white Afrikaner nationalism. Their outcry became the famous Soweto uprising against apartheid.

In the Americas this cruelty has played out on a vast scale. It is still unfolding. The civilisations that existed there before European contact – that is to say, before plague and genocide – were places of astonishing linguistic diversity, holding as many as a third of all world languages at the time, according to Shirley Silber and Wick R. Miller’s powerful American Indian Languages. We on the left focus, as we should, on the human cost – the suffering, the children torn from parents, the beatings and slavery and forced migrations. Conquerors and imperialists can and do force language change at gunpoint, as they did when they imprisoned the Indigenous children of North America and Australia in English-only residential schools, as they did when they forbade African people kidnapped into slavery from speaking their native languages. Only long after the damage has been done can anyone gauge or grieve the violence and loss to human knowledge, to human ways of knowing, that linguicide represents.



III. In her book Endangered Languages, Thomason points to the now-dormant Australian Indigenous language Damin. Unlike any other known language, Damin used words as ‘abstract names for logically cohesive families of concepts’, such as a pronoun (n!aa) that ‘refers to any set of people that includes the speaker’, like we or I, and another pronoun (n!uu) for ‘any set that does not include the speaker’. In certain Oto-Manguean languages spoken in Mexico, nouns related to any organic material are grammatically inseparable from the larger organism, which is specified by a prefix or even by the structure of the word itself, according to René González, a researcher at the CEDELIO Centre for Research and Development of Indigenous Languages in Oaxaca: ‘You can’t just say liver, you have to say chicken liver or human liver’.

Sounds and literary devices, too, are irreplaceable. One quite beautiful feature in Salish-Pend d’Oreille, an endangered Indigenous language spoken in north-western Montana, and one of its close cousins is a certain kind of onomatopoeia built into certain words, in which a second root consonant is repeated three times to emulate a sound, as Thomason explains.

Compare . . . the root liq ‘rip’ with the sound-symbolic

word liqqqq ‘the sound of a lot of threads breaking

(e.g., a shirt coming unraveled when you tear it)’, or
the root cikw ‘shine’ with cikwkwkwk ‘little shiny things

sparkling, like sequins on a dress or sparks flying up’.


These are ways of thinking, of organising information about the world, that cannot be extrapolated from English or Chinese. When a language dies, a system of thought is lost.



IV. UNESCO rates the vitality of languages on a scale, from ‘safe’ down through ‘unsafe’, ‘definitively endangered’, ‘severely endangered’, ‘critically endangered’ and ‘extinct’. However, even languages that are technically extinct are not necessarily lost to the mists of history. For communities whose languages have been taken from them forcefully, Thomason says, ‘you can see all sorts of unpleasant implications: your language is dead, your tribe are dead, you’re dead’ – adding insult to injury for people who have already suffered the effects of colonisation and racism. For languages that stand some chance of being revived or revitalised, ‘calling it dormant is more hopeful: nobody’s speaking it now, but we could always bring it back’. As Margaret Workman, a Southern Tutchone speaker from the Canadian Yukon, told CBC News in 2015: ‘I pick up the challenge, and it’s going to survive . . . nobody can tell me my language’s going to die’.

Thomason has been studying Salish-Pend d’Oreille since 1981. Salish-Pend d’Oreille is part of the Pacific Northwest linguistic area of the United States and Canada, which includes the Salishan, Wakashan and Chimakuan families. It has fewer than twenty remaining native speakers (that is, speakers who learned the language in infancy and continued speaking it into adulthood). Most of them are elderly, which means that its future is murky – though not sealed, thanks to tribe members’ efforts to revitalise their heritage language.

The Salish-Pend d’Oreille elders desire that their language should outlive them; they are collaborating with Thomason on a dictionary and other resources to facilitate that possibility. If the language lapses into dormancy – and it might – they want as much of it as possible to be recorded first. A vocabulary, a grammar, recorded pronunciations will be there for future generations to pick up, should they choose to do so. Salish-Pend d’Oreille is a living language whose elders can contribute to this effort to keep it so.



V. Every language is shaped by its cultural, political and physical context; knowledge of everything from history to medicinal plants to mythology is encoded into languages in ways that do not always survive translation. Dictionaries and grammars can convey literal meanings, but subtext and context are often gone for good. Because this context is always specific to a place and a historical period, no language revived from dormancy can be an exact copy – the revival always takes place in a different context, one with different needs. To leave the original vocabulary intact, to bring it back to life in its original form, would be to raise a zombie from the grave. To have real life, a language must serve the communication needs of its speakers. A language geared to the needs and lives of, say, a first- century nomadic goat-herding desert people is unlikely to serve the needs of urban millennials. Those who adopt it must breathe new life into it, creating new words and forms that reflect the new speakers’ context, their surroundings, their understandings of gender and labour and time and space, without being subsumed into loanwords from a dominant language.

Perhaps the most successful example of language revival is Modern Hebrew. Ancient Hebrew went extinct sometime around 100 CE, after Emperor Hadrian destroyed the Second Temple and brutally crushed the last of the Judean revolts against Rome. It survived as a Jewish ritual and liturgical language; variants of its alphabet continued to be used in languages such as Yiddish and Ladino, and a great number of texts remained extant. Documentation, in other words, wasn’t a problem. More to the point, however, the modern revival of Hebrew was inseparable from the colonial project of Zionism. No other language revival effort in the world has had such an ironclad ideological framework. Setting aside the political meaning of that framework for the Palestinian and Bedouin peoples, for Jews around the world, and for the geopolitics of the region, there is no question that it has served the language well: Hebrew-medium schools, kibbutzim and media have succeeded in adapting the language to a modern context and creating new generations of native speakers.



VI. Rarely, however, do the forces of history align to move a colonial or dominant power to attempt to preserve or revive a language. More often, those who would keep a language alive are working against larger political forces that bring with them a dominant language. The linguistic nationalism of Tamil, for example, binds the project of preserving the Tamil language and its rich literary tradition into an ideological framework that encompasses the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka as well as resistance in South India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, to the hegemony of Hindi as a national language (itself a reaction to the English dominance imported by the British Raj). As the linguist E. Annamalai has written, Tamil language-preservation efforts emphasise using the language and script – among the most ancient still in common use – in digital formats and to express modern ideas, creating a technological vocabulary that draws on Tamil root words rather than borrowing wholesale from English and developing transliteration websites, Unicode tools and fonts. In a highly technological society like India, a language without such tools risks fading into irrelevance. Similarly, as per a recent study by Serafín M. Coronel-Molina, the language-promotion efforts of the High Academy of the Quechua Language in Cuzco, Peru, employ an ideological framework that combines elements of modern anticolonial thought with a romanticised version of ancient Incan philosophy, as well as efforts to modernise the language through everything from technical vocabulary to pop songs (check out Renata Flores Rivera’s Quechua cover of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ on YouTube).

Tamil and Quechua are relatively ‘safe’ languages, with millions of speakers, though both face encroachment by hegemonic languages like English, Spanish and Hindi. For severely endangered languages, revitalisation is a more urgent question, one bound up with attempts to undo the incalculable damage wrought by decades or centuries of violent suppression. In Canada, the residential- school system, beginning in the 1880s, was designed specifically to ‘remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture . . . “to kill the Indian in the child”’, as Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper admitted in Canada’s official apology in 2008. For Indigenous Canadians, this legacy of abuse and cultural genocide is not distant: the last residential school closed only in 1996, and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Indigenous Foundations at the University of British Columbia have only recently released reports documenting the system’s abuses. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released ninety- four recommendations in 2015, including a public inquiry, a plan to gather ‘data on the criminal victimisation of Aboriginal people’ and recognising language rights as a fundamental right.

Terry Spanish, an educator, translator and language consultant in Ontario, Canada, was raised speaking Anishinaabemowin (also called Ojibwe) but was taken from his parents at the age of five and sent to a residential school. ‘When I came back to my hometown,’ he said, ‘I only spoke English. I had to relearn my own language.’ He now teaches the language that was once taken from him, working with youth and adult heritage speakers to ‘bridge the gap’ – including ways of thinking and nonverbal cues. He notes that languages differ not only in how they discuss topics but in what they discuss and in which spheres: translation between the two involves not only words but concepts filtered through culture and worldview. Literal translations of meaning are only the beginning. Communication is broad and it is deep.



VII. Academic institutions, in the neoliberal as in the colonial era, orient themselves towards the individual rather than the collective as the basic unit of society. This, Ingram notes, often prevents them from viewing questions of linguistic heritage from an Indigenous perspective. A language can’t be the possession of any one individual, but the ethics committees and institutional review boards that approve academic fieldwork obtain the permission of individuals – not of communities – to collect and use data. Crediting speakers and collaborators as co-authors, thereby copyrighting information in their names, is a first step. ‘The time has come to re- evaluate and decolonise that relationship’, Ingram says.

It used to be common practice for doctoral candidates to visit an Indigenous community for a year or two while writing their dissertations – often with the best of intentions – and then to disappear into academic life, never to return. Often these researchers left with artefacts and stories in hand, enriching themselves but offering no compensation to the communities who trusted them. Today, linguists who work with speakers of Indigenous languages are expected to work in ways that benefit the community, such as creating dictionaries, grammars or language- learning materials that not only document the language but help new speakers to access it as a second or heritage language. It’s up to the community to decide whether this is desirable and what materials would be most useful. Thomason writes and speaks with passion about the ethics involved in this work. She studies and documents Salish-Pend d’Oreille with a keen awareness of the chequered legacy of those who have come before her. ‘There are many minority communities that don’t want to let outsiders in at all’, she says, noting that scientific study of any language, important though it might be, must accede to the wishes of its speakers.



VIII. The prospects for language revitalisation or revival are best when there is a critical mass of people with a cultural and/or ideological interest in giving the language new life, usually those for whom it is a heritage language. For example, while there are only six thousand remaining speakers of the Indigenous American language Lakota, with an average age of nearly seventy, the Lakota Nation has more than one hundred and seventy thousand members, making it one of the largest Indigenous nations in North America today. Though most Lakota people do not grow up speaking their heritage language, there is enough interest to sustain a variety of efforts to preserve the language through schools, a dictionary and even a summer institute that weighs and votes on new words to update the language. (This effort is currently being documented in the film Rising Voices/Hótȟaŋiŋpi.) Likewise, upstate New York has an active community of Kanien’keha (Mohawk) speakers, as Indian Time reported in 2008; their efforts include a ‘language nest’, a language-immersion preschool program for small children. Language-nest programmes were first implemented in New Zealand and have been quite effective tools in preserving the Maori language there; they have since been adopted around the world.

Even where a language has lapsed into dormancy, the efforts of just one or two people can make an enormous difference. Thomason points to the Algonquian language Miami, the heritage language of the Miami Nation in the midwestern United States, whose last native speaker died in 1962. Daryl Baldwin, a member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, has taken on reviving the Miami language as his life’s work. Baldwin ‘earned an M.A. in linguistics … taught himself Miami as a second language, from written documents’ and ‘is raising his four children to speak Miami’.

For languages that have lain dormant longer the challenge is greater, since audio recordings are not available and written records are sparse and often too formal to reflect the full context of everyday life. Mark Abley notes, in his book Spoken Here, this problem in efforts to revive the Indigenous language Wôpanâak (Wampanoag), which lost its last fluent speaker in the mid- nineteenth century.

Under such a weight of silence, revival is extremely hard. Big terms survive in a seventeenth-century Wampanoag Bible: crucifixion, ascension, salvation. Little terms – the uncounted words and phrases needful for lullabies and lovemaking, cooking and fishing, adult banter and childhood play – rarely show up in scripture.

Despite these challenges, however, the people of the Wampanoag Nation are reclaiming their language. One young child is already being raised as a native speaker. The founder of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (, Jessie ‘Little Doe’ Baird, pursued a master’s degree in Algonquian linguistics in the 1990s. Today the Nation has two credentialed linguist members, a second- language curriculum, a dictionary and language classes and camps.

Digital tools in particular are proving valuable to those attempting linguistic reclamation. For those with access, the internet has greatly changed the way diasporic speakers interact with their languages. Pittsburgh Hungarian arose as a distinct dialect in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because a wave of immigrants resettled in a faraway community where they could speak Hungarian only with one another, not with their home community. Today, people who emigrate can stay in touch with family and friends on social media and video chat. Thomason points out that the text-based nature of social-media interaction means that younger speakers are getting more practice at writing their languages, which also increases the written documentation of everyday conversation, an element too often missing from more formal written documents. Seeing the language in writing also adds a certain sense of ‘legitimacy’ to it, justified or not: ‘Linguists might tear their hair over this, but that’s the way the world is’, Thomason says. There can be a psychological shift away from ‘Oh, that’s just Indian talk’ when a language is documented and written.

What these reclamation efforts in process have in common is that they are initiated, driven and directed by community members themselves, on their own terms. White fragility notwithstanding, outsiders must learn to take no for an answer. Todd, drawing on her work with students as well as Anishnaabemowin and Inuktitut speakers, says: ‘As one of my students succinctly put it in class today, it comes down to consent. It also comes down to reciprocity and accountability. When you’re dealing with a history of colonial violence, accountability is the key’. Rather than focusing on individual needs or goals, outsiders who participate in language reclamation work must ‘approach it as a living relationship’. Likewise, revitalisation projects must come from communities themselves, not from interested outsiders. ‘Not every group sees the loss of its language as a disaster’, Thomason points out.



IX. Even within language groups, differentiations and hierarchies – ethnic, regional, religious and linguistic – often emerge that can hinder reclamation and documentation efforts. Differences in dialect, for example, present serious problems: which version of a language should take priority? Documenting a language forces a certain amount of standardisation, especially where there are large numbers of dialects with small numbers of speakers. ‘It’s a horrible problem. You have to standardise a language if you’re going to preserve it’, Thomason explains. Many languages have a wide variety of dialects, with vocabulary and even grammatical structure changing from village to village. In India, which has fifteen official languages, Ethnologue estimates that about eight hundred and fifty languages and one thousand six hundred dialects are in daily use. When limited resources are available to document a language, some standardisation becomes necessary – so whose dialect becomes ‘standard’?

Peru’s Quechua language academy displays a marked preference for the Cuzco dialect, in turn devaluing more rural dialects. The result is often that the most educated Quechua specialists – most of whom are native Spanish speakers – find themselves insisting to native, monolingual Quechua speakers that their speech is ‘improper’ and not the ‘pure, authentic Quechua of the Incas’, asserting ownership over the language and connecting it with nationalist and anti-colonial ideology, Coronel-Molina argues. This question has been a huge obstacle for efforts to revive Scots Gaelic, too, according to Thomason: ‘The elders don’t like the way it’s standardised because it’s not the way they talk’. The implication that a dialect isn’t the ‘right’ one can be highly offensive: ‘We’ve got our own variety and it’s as good as yours and we don’t want to hear you correct us!’


X. Most living languages are fragile. A chart of their distribution looks a lot like a chart of global wealth inequality, with incomprehensible concentration at both ends. According to UNESCO and Thomason, roughly 97 per cent of the world’s population speak 4 per cent of its languages, while 96 per cent of languages are spoken by around 3 per cent of people. Language follows money, follows capital, expands with markets. What, then, is the future for minority languages – and for the project of a revolutionary left that speaks the languages of the global 99 per cent? Languages are cultures; they are worldviews; they are identities; but they are also tools.

Zoe Todd’s grandfather was the last of her ancestors to grow up speaking Plains Cree, but today her younger cousin is fluent, her aunt teaches the language to the next generation through television and story and Cree is the most widely spoken Aboriginal language in Canada. This shift has occurred in two generations – through the collective, self-directed work of people who refuse to be erased. ‘We’ve revived what they tried to eradicate’, says Todd, ‘by treating it as something alive, a living relationship that’s deserving of love and care. It’s taking a new form. But it’s strong’.



XI. Dare we speak, then, of salvage or even of hope? If we would struggle to keep alive – or resurrect – movements and traditions, revolutionary ways of parsing the world, the wisdom of our forebears and ancestors, in what language should we speak of such slippery things? And if our dialects and our minds, our very perceptions, have been colonised and standardised, making our own speech foreign to us? Twenty-first-century Marxists must be nimble if we are to revive our own idiolect: if its grammatical structure remains one shaped by class, its vocabulary must have enough breadth to encompass multiple and intersecting identities and realities, its nouns and pronouns unrestricted by binary gender. Can we lubricate our tongues with our own voices, our working- class dialects and interethnic inventions and personal pidgins, and create a living, intercultural lexicon to deploy against the forces of imperialism and the capitalist death drive? If Marxism is, as Walter Benjamin would have it, a conversation between the living and the dead, what does it mean when the dead outnumber the living? Can our old languages and our new ones speak us forward?

[1] Thomason is a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan and is not related to the author of this article, though she was amused to be interviewed by her ‘Google Twin’.

This article was first published in Salvage #5: Contractions, in October 2017.

Sarah Grey is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her work on topics including politics, language, food, and labor has appeared in Best Food Writing 2015, Jacobin, Bitch, Saveur, International Socialist Review, Monthly Review, Lucky Peach, and more. She edits and indexes academic, activist, and creative nonfiction (with a specialty in Marxism) for publishers and individuals under the name Grey Editing ( and was awarded the American Copy Editors Society’s 2016 Robinson Prize for Excellence in Copy Editing. She can be reached on Twitter at @greyediting or by email at