Language Dormancy vs. Death

One of the speakers at the conference was Brenda Lintinger, a speaker of Tunica-Tulane, a native north American language from Louisiana whose last fluent speaker died almost fifty years ago. She commented that her tribe never likes to consider their language dead, but rather, sleeping.
I was thinking later about the difference between sleeping and extinction. In the first case, there is hope against many odds that someone could wake the language up, and despite major changes in surroundings, it could be brought to life again. Hebrew in Israel, on a massive scale, and Wampanoag in Massachusetts, on a small scale, are two modern cases of such efforts. If you ever saw Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper” you know it is hard to wake up and find yourself a big chunk of years in the future. Suppose your people were hunter-gatherers, who never had wheels except as sacred objects, and never built any lasting structures, but instead followed the movements of animals and crops with the seasons. You were still fully human, with deeply developed human culture and language, but modern people know little about your life because you didn’t leave much of a written or architectural record, or because the Europeans who first met you overwhelmed you with disease and war.
Now, you wake up in the 21st century with cars, internet and the weight of post-Bush America all around you. Casinos are big – your people may be able to build one, having some slim legal claim to sovereignty, but these casinos devastate the environment and prey on addictive tendencies in some individuals. Furthermore, because of the special legal status of your ethnic group, there is an enrollment period to prove you are a member of the tribe, and those who don’t sign up are not legally allowed after a certain cutoff date to benefit from the casinos. In this imaginary scenario I am mixing up the experiences of a number of different indigenous groups currently alive in what is now called New England, but the threads are real ones indigenous people have described to me and written about.
Against all these odds, languages and cultures can be revived. And the people who do reclaim their language and culture often describe a renewed sense of history and connectedness. The Tunica-Biloxi woman at the conference read an opening prayer in her language for all of us, and said that even though she is not certain how it used to be pronounced, she finds that just knowing the meaning of the words and saying them out loud allows them to roll off her tongue and experience a confidence that the phrasing will come naturally.

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