Dwindling Voices: Endangered Languages in Our Communities and Around the World

Hilaria Cruz, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Louisville

Like recipes that are cherished and handed down through generations, languages require care if they are to exist in the future. Mother tongues are repositories of invaluable wisdom, creativity, and beauty, and they enable us to communicate and share with family, friends, and neighbors.  

Language is vital to our survival and links us to our ancestors. In the same way we entreat higher beings with prayers and invocations, we pass down knowledge to future generations through folk tales and other stories. Examples are “The Winter Stories” performed in longhouses by the Iroquois people of upstate New York and, for many Europeans, the Grimm’s Fairy Tales collected–and first published in 1812– in Germany by the Grimm Brothers.    

Like family recipes, many world languages are passed orally from one generation to the next. When a speaker dies, their knowledge can vanish from the hearts and minds of future generations if they are not cared for, saved, or taught to the young. Whether grandma’s recipes for borscht, cornbread, succotash, or tamales or the many Native American languages that are struggling to stay alive—Cherokee, Myaamia, Ojibwe or Shawnee—these cultural treasures must be admired, preserved, and passed onto future generations.  

This semester I am teaching a course on Endangered Languages ( Linguistics 590) as part of the Comparative Humanities Department at the University of Louisville. My students and I are excited to share our perspectives on the global phenomena of the disappearance of languages, the diminishing of smaller languages, and language revitalisation across the globe. These issues affect communities on the other side of the world, but they are also close to home, and language preservation is important for every community. Enjoy these short vignettes written by students in the class about different topics in the field of Endangered Languages. 

The Need for a Language Center in Kentucky

Emma Fridy 

Kentucky is a rich melting pot of ancestries with a surprising amount of linguistic diversity. 7.5% of Kentuckians report speaking a language other than English with almost 120,000 people speaking Spanish and tens of thousands of others speaking German, French, Arabic, Somali, and Chinese. Historically, settlers of European origin displaced Kentucky’s native population and since then Kentucky’s native languages, like Shawnee and Chickasaw, have been nearly exterminated. Over time, Kentucky’s settlers also assimilated into English, and today there is very little linguistic diversity among Kentucky’s historic population. Without dedicated effort to preserve linguistic diversity, it’s all too easy for languages to fade away. 

Kentucky’s current linguistic diversity should be cherished and preserved, and underserved communities of non-English speakers should be prioritized. In order to do that, Kentucky and Louisville should do research to get a clearer picture of Kentucky’s linguistic diversity. Currently there is census data that provides some data about languages spoken in Kentucky, but there is no demographic map of languages spoken and no in-depth analyses of Kentucky’s languages to inform preservation efforts or community services such as childhood education and translation services. The best way to preserve our languages is to have a non-profit endangered languages documentation center started by community members, following the example of cities like New York and Toronto, and for our city and state governments to employ language advocates to serve non-English communities following the example of Austin, Texas. In order to keep languages alive, they must be researched, documented, and most importantly, passed onto our children. 

Languages of Louisville’s Libraries

William Holland 

In Louisville, as across the United States, English is the standard language; however, this is not the sole language that Louisvillians use. In service of our unofficial mission statement, “Prioritize Access”, the public library endeavors to speak and write all the languages of their patrons. This manifests in many ways, from staffing locations with foreign-language speakers to maintaining collections of materials in languages from Arabic, to Hindi, to Urdu. Speaking English natively, I never considered that it was possible not to have books in my language; after I mastered my ABC’s, I could read sales receipts, street signs, and bumper stickers with ease. But this is not a statistical certainty: roughly half the world’s languages are unwritten. Such languages are difficult to use in the modern world, with its love of paper trails and land deeds and identification cards. Under such pressures, new writing systems spring into use frequently. They serve as tools to legitimize your community in the eyes of literate bureaucracy and to pass on your stories as they sounded to you; whether to your children, or to generations still to come. These steps, from written standard to storybook treasury, are ways people care for little languages in a world of globe-spanning giants. Immortalizing themselves on the page, they aim to speak directly to the future, not merely be spoken of.

The Sounds of Kentucky

Saro Klug 

What does Kentucky sound like? One answer to this question may not lie in Kentucky, but in Oklahoma. Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, many of the Shawnee were forcibly removed from the Ohio Valley region to northeastern Oklahoma – where they reside to this day, constituting three federally recognized tribes: the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and the Shawnee Tribe. With less than one hundred speakers, the Shawnee language is now considered critically endangered. Many factors have contributed to the current state of indigenous North American languages, including the violent punishment of students for speaking Native languages in the boarding school era. Speaking a Native language may no longer result in a beating, but the United States falls behind the world when it comes to protecting these languages. Regardless of these burdens, the Shawnee are now pursuing language revitalization, even moving instruction online with the advent of Covid-19. Kentuckians should ask themselves what Indigenous rights mean for them, and familiarize themselves with the indigenous-led movements of #LandBack and language revitalization efforts. We must ask ourselves what our role in these efforts will be. Now is the time to speak truth to power.

Resources for native linguists can be found at Natives4Linguistics and Indigenous Language Program – MIT Linguistics

Resources for Kentucky educators can be found at  https://heritage.ky.gov/aa-na/Pages/overview.aspx 

Endangered Dialects of Kentucky

Amy Follmer

When Eastern Kentucky is mentioned, many people in the U.S., and even other Kentuckians, conjure up negative stereotypes. From ‘Fetch me the whatsit, whatchamacallit, doohickey, thingamajig from over yonder’ (Get that thing from over there for me) to ‘Y’all’d’ve knew that’ (You all should have known that), going back to the holler (town/area) to see Memaw (grandma) can seem like an entirely different world.

My extended family is from Eastern Kentucky, therefore it’s a lot of “We’re fixin’ to go ‘round to the IGA a’ter while” (we’re going to the grocery store later) and “Imma coming” (I’m coming). My mother was born in Letcher County, but you would never know it because she has trained herself not to use her Appalachian accent; instead, she speaks with a Louisvillian accent. Today, you can only hear it when she is using it ironically.

 An Appalachian accent is commonly seen as ‘uneducated’, and ‘improper’ and people with the accent are seen as ‘hicks’, ‘hillbillies’, and ‘rednecks’, so people train themselves to use a different accent in order to be seen as educated and accepted by mainstream society. This is an immense disservice to the people who still live in the holler and speak that way. People from Appalachia feel shame when coming to the city and speaking the way they do, when they shouldn’t, especially when we all have accents of our own, even when we can’t hear them.

Love of Language Learning

Kyle Cook

Growing up in Louisville, I would visit my Great Grandma Chick in her quaint, ranch style house in the South-end of town. She was from Tokyo, and I loved learning Japanese phrases from her, and asking her about Japan. I would write on paper plates because I didn’t have a notebook, and kept the plates by my bed and would look at them often. Thus began my life long passion for learning languages.

I would go on to study four different languages in high school–Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Arabic, and add two more in college–Japanese and Hebrew. Although I was fortunate enough to attend Atherton High School with its diverse selection of foreign languages, not every student in Louisville has the same opportunities. 

When Great Grandma Chick got older and could no longer care for herself, my grandparents moved her to the coast of North Carolina where they were staying. Knowing that I might not get a chance to see her again, I wrote her a letter using my more advanced knowledge of Japanese. My grandparents told me how happy it made her, and that she couldn’t stop talking about it. I owe it to my Great Grandma Chick who ignited the spark for my love for language learning. 

Language is Culture is Food is History 

Jonah Larison 

English tells us stories of the past. The history of our words informs us about how the world came to be what it is. We can trace politics, cultural exchange, and even the biodiversity of regions by knowing the words people use. English is not unique in this regard. Every language tells stories. Are these stories important? Who gets to decide that? Have you ever heard of Succotash? Of Sylvester the Cat’s famous catchphrase, “Sufferin’ Succotash”? It’s actually fairly important to the story of the United States. Succotash comes from the Narragansett language, spoken by one of the first tribes to encounter European settlers on the East Coast. Succotash is a vegetable dish made with lima beans, sweet corn, and other shell beans. Even this short description gives us a lot of information. It tells us these vegetables are native to the area and grow easily enough to be used in a common dish. It tells us that the natives were farming and that their relationship with some of the settlers was stable enough to exchange language and recipes. During the Great Depression, succotash became a popular dish because of its cheap and accessible ingredients. My great grandmother, born and raised in Kentucky, made succotash because the other option was just to go hungry. She expressed her love by cooking this old recipe so I would never have to go hungry. I have a reverence for the history of this word, this recipe. It passed through many people before it came to me. It carries the weight of American history.

Language is a natural human condition. Communication is so intrinsic to human nature that humans can’t help but assign meanings to what might otherwise be random sounds. It is natural for people to change language as they use it, giving it character and new patterns. Denying a person language is like denying them a piece of their humanity. All people deserve to speak their mother tongue, and languages across the world should be protected and preserved before it’s too late. The beauty of language lies in its diversity, not its homogeneity. 


Hilaria Cruz

Linguist, native speaker of the Chatino language from Oaxaca, Mexico, and Assistant Professor in the Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville.

Emma Fridy

Student of Political Science and French at the University of Louisville and Managing Editor of the Louisville Political Review

Amy Follmer

Student of French and Spanish at the University of Louisville. Server at Cracker Barrel and barista at Starbucks.

William Holland

Undergrad studying Linguistics and Spanish at the University of Louisville; resident Spanish speaker at the Louisville Free Public Library’s Iroquois branch.

Kyle Cook

Student of French and Mandarin Chinese at the University of Louisville. Intern at Asia Institute Crane House. Server at Ciao Italian Ristorante. 

Saro Klug

Undergraduate student of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Louisville. 

Jonah Larison

Graduate student of Linguistics at the University of Louisville

Left to right: Kyle, Dr. Cruz, Saro, Emma, Amy, Jonah

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