Word to the wise: Not all languages stick around forever. Communication systems from a few cultures in the U.S. (often Native American tribes) have already hit the dead or extinct list, and many more are on their way out. In fact, according to National Geographic, “one language dies every 14 days.”
But a dead language isn’t necessarily what you think: Per the language website Babbel, a language that is dead is “no longer the native language of a community of people”; an extinct language, on the other hand, is a language that is no longer spoken at all. Another classification, according to Ethnologue, is dormant, for languages that, while “not used for daily life … [have] an ethnic community that associates itself with a dormant language and views the language as a symbol of that community’s identity.”
Here are 11 tongues, some extinct, some dead or dormant, and some that are finding new life.
In January 2008, Alaska resident Marie Smith Jones, who was believed to be the last full-blooded Eyak and the only remaining person known to be fluent in the Eyak language, died at age 89. Jones tried to help preserve Eyak by helping with a dictionary and compiling the language’s grammar rules; she also gave two speeches at the United Nations about the importance of preserving Indigenous languages. Unfortunately, the language didn’t carry on among a large group of people—not even her nine children learned Eyak, because when they were young, it was considered improper to speak anything but English.
Today, there’s no one who learned Eyak as a first language, but there’s work to change that. An online project called the dAXunhyuuga' eLearning Place (“The Words of the People”) seeks to “help Eyak descendants, wherever they live, find ways to use the Eyak language and culture in a way that has meaning for them,” according to their website. And in 2016, the Cordova Times reported that 100 people were using it, including 40 Eyak Alaska Natives.
The Yana language consisted of several dialects spoken by the Yana people of north-central California, whose numbers were devastated by illness and massacres brought on the influx of treasure-seeking settlers during the Gold Rush. Famously, one dialect—called Yahi—was spoken by a man named Ishi (which means “man”), and he was instrumental in helping linguist-anthropologist Edward Sapir [PDF] preserve some of the language. When Ishi succumbed to tuberculosis in 1916, that was the end of Yahi; the last Yana speakers in general died around 1940. Ishi’s story would later be told in several books and movies.
There is a sad, but all too common, side note to this tale: Following Ishi’s death, his remains were cremated and buried. But his brain, which had been removed during his autopsy, was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in 1917. It would remain there until 2000, when—following passage of legislation like the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 and the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990—both Ishi’s brain and his ashes were repatriated to tribes determined to be his closest living relatives. To this day, the remains of some 116,000 Native Americans can be found in museums and institutions around the United States.
The Tunica language could be found in Louisiana until the 1940s. A man named Sesostrie Youchigant of the Tunica tribe was considered the last native speaker of Tunica, but even he didn’t have a full grasp of the language—after his mother died in 1915, he typically spoke French and English. Youchigant worked with linguist Mary Haas—a student of Edward Sapir—to try to write down everything he remembered. (“I often had the feeling,” she would later write, “that the Tunica grooves in Youchigant’s memory might be compared to the grooves in a phonograph record; for he could repeat what he had heard but was unable to make up new expressions of his own accord.”) Haas even made recordings of him speaking the language, but the quality is so poor that little can be understood.
Bits and pieces of Tunica would survive as phrases, and according to linguist Patricia Anderson, “[i]n the 1990s, Donna Pierite and her family were designated Tunica storytellers and legend keepers and, as such, began performing Tunica stories as dictated to Haas.” Then, in 2010, Brenda Lintinger, a councilwoman in the Tunica-Biloxi tribe, contacted Tulane University for help understanding Haas’s documentation of the language—which was written for an audience of linguists, not the layperson— so that new Tunica could be created. This ultimately led to the Tunica Language Project, as well as the writing of Tunica-language children’s books, prayers, and even language camps. The effort has had success: The language website Ethnologue now classifies Tunica as “Reawakening” with 32 speakers as a second language as of 2017.
The Tillamook language, spoken by an Oregon-based tribe of the same name, is part of the Salishan languages family, which was originally made up of 23 languages. Though the last fluent speakers collaborated with scholars to record the language from 1965 to 1970, it didn’t survive: According to some, the last known speaker of the language was Minnie Scovell, who died in 1972.
Susquehannock has been gone for a long time. It was part of the Iroquois language family, but almost everything we know about it is from a short vocabulary guide collected by Swedish missionary Johannes Campanius in the 1640s. Even then, the vocabulary guide consisted of only about 100 words. In 1608, explorer John Smith encountered and described the Susquehannock people, calling them gigantic and writing that their language “may well beseeme their proportions, sounding from them, as a voyce in a vault.”
6. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language
From the early 18th century to the mid 20th century, the population of Deaf people in the isolated town of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, was so large that The Atlantic estimates it included “one in every 25 people” in the town. The population of residents who communicated with Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language was even larger, consisting of virtually everyone in both the Deaf and hearing communities. For many reasons—most of them related to Martha’s Vineyard’s relative isolation ending in the mid-19th century—the language started to decline. The last Deaf person fluent in Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language died in the 1950s; without any formal records of the regional language, it didn’t get passed down to younger generations.
7. and 8. Jersey Dutch and Albany Dutch
After settlers from the Netherlands landed in the Americas in the 1600s, variants of Dutch began to crop up across the Northeast. As William Z. Shetter wrote in a 1958 issue of American Speech, the North American versions of Dutch “survived a remarkably long time, but by the end of the 19th century it was in active use only around Albany, New York, and in the northernmost part of New Jersey.” Dubbed Albany Dutch and Jersey Dutch, respectively, Shetter writes that these languages, too, were going the way of the dodo by the early 1900s, “and began attracting attention as collectors’ items.” Around 700 words of Jersey Dutch were preserved in 1910 thanks to linguist/politician J. Dyneley Prince.
Penobscot, a dialect of the Eastern Abenaki language, was used by the Penobscot tribe in Maine until its last fluently native speaker died in the early 1990s. The language was preserved beginning in the 1930s by Frank Siebert, who, in 1982, hired Carol Dana, a member of the tribe, as his research assistant. They worked together to get down as much of the language as possible, and Dana learned about the language through the materials Sieberg had gathered. Though she’s not fluent, Dana knows more about the language than anyone else and is teaching it to the next generation.
10. Eastern Atakapa
All we have left of the Eastern Atakapa language is 287 words written down in 1802 by a man named Martin Duralde [PDF]. The people who spoke the language lived near modern-day Franklin, Louisiana. The degree of its separation from the better-attested Western Atakapa is debated; some think they’re different enough they must be different languages, others that they’re similar enough that they’re the same. But even if they were the same, no types of Atakapa survived past the early 20th century.
The Siuslaw language of the Oregon Pacific coast disappeared in the 1970s, but it’s been preserved quite well for anyone who wants to try to pick it up again. There are dictionaries, plus audio recordings, several hours of fieldwork, and a few books. Despite all of this preservation, few currently speak it fluently.
A version of this story ran in 2009; it has been updated for 2022.