At first glance, or quick skim, this will inject a darting depression into your soul, because of the seeming hopelessness. But then the grace of the writing, and the beauty of the story, will wash away the darkness and, very possibly, inspire you. Read it, and if you have thoughts, or actions, to share with us on the entrepreneurial (or other) conservation of intangible patrimony please share a comment below:
It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are—like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia—the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez, who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.
Yanten Gomez, who uses the tribal name Keyuk, grew up modestly, in Santiago. His father, Blas Yanten, is a woodworker, and his mother, Ivonne Gomez Castro, practices traditional medicine. As a young girl, she was mocked at school for her mestizo looks, so she hesitated to tell her children—Keyuk and an older sister—about their ancestry. They hadn’t known that their maternal relatives descended from the Selk’nam, a nomadic tribe of unknown origin that settled in Tierra del Fuego. The first Europeans to encounter the Selk’nam, in the sixteenth century, were astonished by their height and their hardiness—they braved the frigid climate by coating their bodies with whale fat. The tribe lived mostly undisturbed until the late eighteen-hundreds, when an influx of sheep ranchers and gold prospectors who coveted their land put bounties on their heads. (One hunter boasted that he had received a pound sterling per corpse, redeemable with a pair of ears.) The survivors of the Selk’nam Genocide, as it is called—a population of about four thousand was reduced to some three hundred—were resettled on reservations run by missionaries. The last known fluent speaker of the language, Angela Loij, a laundress and farmer, died forty years ago.
Many children are natural mimics, but Keyuk could imitate speech like a mynah. His father, who is white, had spent part of his childhood in the Arauco region, which is home to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest native community, and he taught Keyuk their language, Mapudungun. The boy, a bookworm and an A student, easily became fluent. A third-grade research project impassioned him about indigenous peoples, and Ivonne, who descends from a line of shamans, took this as a sign that his ancestors were speaking through him. When she told him of their heritage, Keyuk vowed that he would master Selk’nam and also, eventually, Yagán—the nearly extinct language of a neighboring people in the far south—reckoning that he could pass them down to his children and perhaps reseed the languages among the tribes’ descendants. At fourteen, he travelled with his father to Puerto Williams, a town in Chile’s Antarctic province that calls itself “the world’s southernmost city,” to meet Cristina Calderón, the last native Yagán speaker. She subsequently tutored him by phone.
If it is lonely to be the last of anything, the distinction has a mythic romance: the last emperor, the last of the Just, the last of the Mohicans. Keyuk’s precocity enhanced his mystique. A Chilean television station flew him to Tierra del Fuego as part of a series, “Sons of the Earth,” that focussed on the country’s original inhabitants. He was interviewed, at sixteen, by the Financial Times. A filmmaker who knew him put us in touch, and we met at a café in Santiago.
It was a mild autumn morning during Easter week. The city was quiet after a series of student demonstrations protesting tuition costs. Keyuk, who was studying linguistics on a scholarship at the University of Chile, supported their cause. (“The word ‘Selk’nam’ can mean ‘We are equal,’ ” he noted, “though it can also mean ‘we are separate.’ ”) Keyuk is tall, loose-limbed, and baby-faced, with a thatch of black hair. His style is nonchalant—stovepipe jeans and a leather jacket. Since his teens, Keyuk has composed songs in Selk’nam, and he performs with an “ethno-electronic” band. But he carried himself with solemnity, as if conscious of the flame he tended—or, at least, said that he tended. How, I asked, could I be sure that he really spoke Selk’nam, if no one else did? He smiled slightly and said, “I guess I have the last word.”
Keyuk’s voice is a boyish tenor, but when he speaks Selk’nam it changes; the language is harsher and more percussive than Spanish. To master the grammar and the vocabulary, he had studied, among other texts, a lexicon published in 1915 by José María Beauvoir, a Salesian missionary. The sound of the language was preserved in recordings that the eminent anthropologist Anne Chapman made forty years ago. Chapman, a protégée of Claude Lévi-Strauss, was an early activist for endangered languages in Meso- and South America. Cristina Calderón, Keyuk’s tutor, was one of her subjects, and, having heard of Keyuk’s projects, Chapman sought him out in Santiago, about ten years ago. She was then in her mid-eighties; she died in 2010.
I joined Keyuk and his mother the next evening for dinner at a restaurant in the old fish market, where the local sea bass is a specialty. Ivonne is petite, blond, and animated, but, like Keyuk, she has a regal poise, and it is hard to imagine her as a bullied outcast. We shouted cheerfully above the din, though Keyuk seemed detached—as prodigies grow out of their teens, they sometimes mistrust the curiosity they have inspired. But when he spoke of the Selk’nam it was with intensity. “Our mythology is rich,” he said. “Everything in our world—plants and animals, the sun and stars—has a voice. On our map of the universe, we called the East ‘the space without time’ ”—the realm of the unknown. “We had a Paleolithic skill set yet a boundless imagination. They both existed with a high degree of social conformity. Long after we dispersed, we preserved our beliefs.” He added, “One precious thing, to me, about the language is its vocabulary of words for love. They change according to the age, sex, and kinship of the speakers and the nature of the emotion. There are things you can’t say in Spanish.”
There are approximately seven billion inhabitants of earth. They conduct their lives in one or several of about seven thousand languages—multilingualism is a global norm. Linguists acknowledge that the data are inexact, but by the end of this century perhaps as many as fifty per cent of the world’s languages will, at best, exist only in archives and on recordings. According to the calculations of the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat)—a joint effort of linguists at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and at the University of Eastern Michigan—nearly thirty language families have disappeared since 1960. If the historical rate of loss is averaged, a language dies about every four months.
The mother tongue of more than three billion people is one of twenty, which are, in order of their current predominance: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Wu Chinese, Korean, French, Telugu, Marathi, Turkish, Tamil, Vietnamese, and Urdu. English is the lingua franca of the digital age, and those who use it as a second language may outnumber its native speakers by hundreds of millions. On every continent, people are forsaking their ancestral tongues for the dominant language of their region’s majority. Assimilation confers inarguable benefits, especially as Internet use proliferates and rural youth gravitate to cities. But the loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be understood until it is too late to reverse them.
Little is known about the origins of human speech. It seems unlikely, though, that there was ever a pre-Babel world. The geographic isolation of small groups breeds heterogeneity, both of dialects and of language isolates, as it probably did among Paleolithic hunters. Nowhere is there a richer or more concentrated cluster of languages, some eight hundred, than in Papua New Guinea, with its daunting topography of highlands and rain forests. In New Guinea, as in other hot spots of endangerment, indigenous languages are a user’s guide to ecosystems that are increasingly fragile and—in the face of climate change—increasingly irreplaceable…
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