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Five languages that have returned from the brink

By Pieta Woolley

In the July/August issue of The Observer, Tali Folkin documents “The End of Aramaic” - its languishing due in part to ISIS’ activities in Syria and Iraq. 

Aramaic is just one of nearly 2,000 at-risk languages the United Nations (UN) documents on its Atlas of Endangered Languages. The good news is, revitalization is possible.

Here are five languages that have made their way back from the brink.

1. Hebrew

Leaders transformed the language of Jewish hymns and prayers into a daily spoken language in the late 1800s. Thanks to intentional nation-building at the same time, it was taught as a political act in Jerusalem and the area now known as Israel. 

2. Cornish

Classified by the UN as “extinct” in the 20th century, that classification has been revoked for this south-western British language. Written Cornish was formalized in 2008, and the first Cornish immersion program for preschoolers opened five years ago.

3. Haida

Like many North American indigenous languages, Haida was spoken by just a handful of elders by the late 20th century, due to the impacts of disease that decimated the population and residential schools that enforced English. Now, schools in Haida Gwaii (off the north coast of British Columbia) teach the language, and it has its own app, Facebook page and manga books.

4. Sanskrit

The liturgical language of Hinduism, also used by Buddhists and Jains, lost speakers by the 1800s. By the 1890s, though, revival societies had cropped up both in India and America. Today, it’s taught in schools and recognized in India’s constitution. What's more, All India Radio (like CBC of BBC) broadcasts across the country twice daily in Sanskrit.

5. Ainu

Japan’s indigenous culture, the Ainu, lives mostly in the country's north now. In the mid-1800s, Japan banned the minority language and cultural practices; in 1997, it offered an official reversal when the Law for the Promotion of Ainu Culture was introduced.  

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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