In just under four weeks, Jeremy and I will be flying to Seattle, where we will get on a small ship with the rest of my family and sail up to Alaska. Some of you old-timers may remember that I did this once before, though, bizarrely, I never wrote about it in any detail or posted any pictures or anything. This time around it will be different, I assure you!
Anyway, I remembered from last time that on one of the evenings in Alaska, a Tlingit elder came aboard and talked a bit about his heritage (the elder was, in fact, this man, Joe Williams, and he was great). At some point in his talk he told us a few phrases in the Tlingit language, one of them being "thank you", or gunalchéesh. I repeated this word over and over in my head while he continued his talk, and when his presentation was over and everyone was going over to thank him, I gathered my courage, went up to him and said gunalchéesh - and his surprise and pleasure made me very happy I had done so.
Of course, after the Alaska trip, I promptly forgot my one word of Tlingit, and I didn’t really think about the whole episode again until the other day, when I got the itinerary for this upcoming trip and saw that Joe Williams would be coming aboard this time around as well.
Since my interest in endangered languages is a lot stronger and deeper now than it was five years ago, I promptly embarked on an Internet odyssey to find out everything I could about the Tlingit language before going to Alaska again, in the hopes of maybe being able to talk to Mr. Williams about it a bit if I got the opportunity.
Well, even though I pretty much knew what to expect when I started looking for some statistics on the language, I couldn’t help but be utterly dismayed when I swung by Ethnologue and discovered that - as of ten years ago, anyway - not only were there only about 700 Tlingit speakers, but the majority of the youngest speakers were 60 to 65. The youngest! It doesn’t take a linguist to figure out that a language with just a few hundred speakers - all of whom are presumably already bilingual and none of whom are children growing up with the language as their mother tongue - does not have particularly good prospects. I thought of my one measly word of Tlingit and then felt very, very sad. I felt even sadder when I started reading these fascinating accounts of a way of life that has disappeared forever - spoken in a language that is in danger of disappearing forever.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. You can study Tlingit (as well as Haida and Tsimshian, which are drastically more endangered) at the Sealaska Heritage Institute and the University of Alaska Southeast, as well as in some Tlingit communities, and you can even order CDs and cassettes for learning Tlingit yourself, so there must be a fair number of people interested in preserving and/or revitalizing the language.
Of course, none of this guarantees that the language will be maintained, but it’s better than nothing - and I truly believe that, when it comes to preserving endangered languages, anything is better than nothing. Maybe Tlingit can’t be saved, but as this very good, short essay on language revival puts it, "It may be true that once a language is dead it is dead forever, but some kinds of dead are clearly preferable to others."
(Incidentally, as I was looking for information on Tlingit, I came across the very interesting and informative site of a non-profit organization called Native Languages of the Americas. The longer you poke around on the site, the more fascinating tidbits there are to uncover. I’m not affiliated with them in any way, but I heartily endorse what they’re doing, so for an insight into Amerindian languages and culture, I recommend checking them out!)