10 Extinct Languages of the U.S.

iStock
iStock

Word to the wise: Not all languages stick around forever. Communication systems from a few cultures in the U.S. (often times, from Native American tribes) have already hit the extinct list, and many more are on their way out. In fact, according to National Geographic, "one language dies every 14 days." Here are 10 tongues that didn't make it to the present day.

1. EYAK

Up until 2008, the Eyak language was spoken in Alaska. In January of that year, Marie Smith Jones, the last known full-blooded Eyak and the only remaining person known to be fluent in the language, died at age 89. Jones tried to help preserve Eyak by penning a dictionary and grammar rules. She also gave two speeches at the United Nations about the importance of preserving indigenous languages. But despite her efforts, the language didn't carry on. Marie had nine children and none of them learned the language because it was considered improper to speak anything but English at the time.

2. YANA

Yana was last spoken in north-central California more than a century ago by the Yahi people. The last native speaker went by the name Ishi, and, like Marie Smith Jones, was instrumental in preserving the language (with help from linguist-anthropologist Edward Sapir). Ishi and his family were around during the Three Knolls Massacre of 1865, which killed off about half of the remaining Yahi people. The rest of them slowly died off, and when Ishi (which means "man" in Yana) succumbed to tuberculosis in 1916, that was the end of the spoken language. Ishi's story has been featured in several books and movies.

3. TUNICA

The Tunica language could be found in Louisiana until the 1930s. Considered the last native speaker, Sesostrie Youchigant of the Native American Tunica tribe worked with linguist Mary Haas, a student of Edward Sapir, to try to write down everything he remembered. Though the language hasn't been revived yet, one descendent on the Tunica tribe, Brenda Lintinger, began another project to bring it back in 2011, with the help of students. The aspiring scholar reached out to experts a Tulane University's Interdisciplinary Program in Linguistics and also penned children's books in the Native American language, building upon Hass's work.

4. TILLAMOOK

Tillamook isn't just the name of a cheese. Until the mid 1970s, the Tillamook language, from an Oregon-based tribe of the same name, thrived. Tillamook 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.

5. SUSQUEHANNOCK

This language has been gone for a long time. It was part of the Iroquois language family, but the only way we even know it existed is from a short vocabulary guide written by Swedish missionary Johannes Campanius in the 1640s. Even then, the vocabulary guide consisted of only about 100 words.

6. MARTHA'S VINEYARD SIGN LANGUAGE

In the early 18th century to the mid 20th century, the population of deaf people in the isolated town of Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard was so large that The Atlantic estimates it included "1 in every 25 people" in the town. And the population of residents who communicated with Martha's Vineyard Sign Language was even larger, consisting of those in both the deaf and hearing communities. The regional language was a combination of Chilmark Sign Language, American Sign Language, Old Kent Sign Language, and French Sign Language. As the tourism industry on the island picked up, the deaf population declined. The last deaf person fluent in Martha's Vineyard Sign Language died in 1952. Without any formal records of the regional language, it didn't get passed down to younger generations.

7. JERSEY DUTCH

This language was a variant on the Dutch language and could be found in certain New Jersey counties from the 1600s until the early 20th century. Some linguists even think it might have had some Creole elements to it.

8. EASTERN ABNAKI

The Eastern Abnaki language was used by the Penobscot tribe in Maine until nearly 25 years ago with the last native speaker.

9. EASTERN ATAKAPA

All we have left of the Eastern Atakapa language is 287 words written down in 1802. The people who spoke the language lived near modern-day Franklin, Louisiana.

10. SIUSLAW

The Siuslaw language of the Oregon Pacific coast has been out of commission since the 1970s, but it's been preserved quite well for anyone who wants to try to pick it up again. There's a 12-page vocabulary list, plus audio recordings, several hours of fieldwork, and a few books. Despite all of this preservation, few currently speaking it fluently.

Save Up to 80 Percent on Furniture, Home Decor, and Appliances During Wayfair's Way Day 2020 Sale

Wayfair
Wayfair

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Duolingo’s Free Virtual Convention Will Cover How “Black Languages Matter” and More

Classrooms are especially important places to embrace language variations.
Classrooms are especially important places to embrace language variations.
SDI Productions/iStock via Getty Images

Last September, a few hundred language enthusiasts gathered in London for Duolingo’s first annual convention, or “Duocon.” They attended panels, decorated cupcakes to look like the Duolingo owl, and generally celebrated their love of language. In light of the pandemic, this year’s Duocon will be all-virtual—and while that means you’ll have to bake your own cupcakes, it also means you can attend without leaving home.

The free event, which takes place this Saturday, September 26, boasts an exciting list of speakers covering a wide range of language-related topics. Participants will get a behind-the-scenes look at Duolingo itself: illustrator Greg Hartman will talk about creating the app’s cast of characters, for example, and software engineer Joseph Rollinson will discuss how he gauges the program’s effectiveness. Other experts will focus on the broader implications of language. Among them is Dr. Anne Charity Hudley, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies how the language used in classrooms can (often negatively) impact the education of students from diverse racial backgrounds.

Her talk, titled “Black Languages Matter: Learning the Languages and Language Varieties of the Black Diaspora,” illuminates the influences of Black language on American culture as a whole. As Hudley explains, it goes beyond common examples from sports and entertainment.

“There is no U.S. without the harsh and real legacy of slavery and strength that enslaved people had to create culture in a new place, in contact with those around them. So, the language and culture are embedded in how we think about the U.S.” she tells Mental Floss. “The big influences [are] in the discourses about what key U.S. concepts mean to us—like liberation, freedom, and justice. Black people taught the U.S.—and the world—what it means to have a history of oppression and still be proud.”

Dr. Hudley's Duocon lecture is a must-see.Duolingo

When you learn about language variations, you’re gaining insight into the lives of the people who speak them—how they “eat, sleep, learn, work, and create community and identity,” Hudley says. Language can also help preserve those traditions when you’re unable to actually practice them.

“One aspect from Black culture my students and I have been talking about a lot during the pandemic is the language of Black cookouts [and] barbecues. We can’t safely have [them] in person, but we can talk about them—and that language helps keep our cultural memory alive and our cultural practices intact,” she says. “What we eat at the cookout, how we negotiate who brings and cooks what (and who is even allowed to cook, as in: who can make the potato salad) are all culturally situated and negotiated through language.”

And since language is so intimately linked to culture, teaching someone that a certain word or pronunciation is “broken English”—and forcing them to stop using it—is a harmful way of separating them from who they are.

“A person is their language and their culture—colonizers knew this,” Hudley explains. “By telling someone their language was broken, it was a very effective way to colonize their mind and make them very quickly and effectively ashamed of their entire being. We have to make people aware of this process and actively dismantle it.”

Learn more by tuning into Hudley’s Duocon presentation at 2:10 p.m. EST this Saturday, which you can register for here.