Finding the Words for Hope: The Fight for Endangered Languages

Iktsuarpok” is a word with no direct English translation. From Inuit, it best translates to “the frustration of waiting for someone to show up.” It is a word imbued with special meaning, and a word that may now be threatened. The Endangered Languages Project classifies the Inuit language as “vulnerable,” with only around 20,000 speakers. For iktsuarpok, it seems, time may be running out.

Uncommonly pithy words that native English speakers struggle to pronounce, like “iktsuarpok,” are often presented to the general public as reasons for saving endangered languages. If we lose these languages, the argument goes, we lose their beautiful words as well. But Gregory Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, argues that romanticizing unique words from endangered languages is an inadequate way to capture their value to speakers and communities around the world.

In an interview with the HPR, he explained that “there is nothing special, per se, about a language being endangered.” Instead, he carries out his work for different reasons. “We have a fairly narrow set of windows of opportunity to understand how language develops and how humans divide their collective experience and metaphorize it,” he said. “The more of these windows that get permanently closed, the less we’ll ever be able to know about what is and what isn’t possible and why.”

It is our “vocalized expression of humanness,” as he calls it, that separates humans from animals. Around the world, the race to document and pass down these expressions is on. Leading the way are students and teachers, emboldened by technology to move away from learning hegemonic languages and instead dedicating their time to protecting endangered languages.

Read more: Harvard Political Review

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