There’s a river that runs cool and fresh, down from the distant Guge Mountains, south to Lake Chew Bahir, in southern Ethiopia. It’s an ancient landscape, lying in the Great Rift Valley, and close to the most extraordinary collection of hominin remains anywhere on the planet, where Homo’s habilis, rudolfensis, and erectus ate their lunch and knapped their tools.
It’s called the Weito River, and it defines a boundary between two of the ethno-linguistically-based regional states. In one of the small villages along its banks, sit a group of village elders, deep in conversation. Others from the village walk past them, to bathe or wash in the river maybe, but not one of them has any clue what they're talking about.
That’s because they are the very last speakers of Ongota.
Through inter-marriage with other tribes, the language is slowly being devoured by Tsamai, the language of the village majority, who see Ongota as outdated and beneath them. It’s a subject-object-verb ordered language, and so ‘Nigel-wine-drank’ would be a correct and very credible Ongota sentence.
There are many other languages on the endangered list, like S’aoch from Cambodia, with its last ten speakers, after the culture that spoke it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge fifty years ago, or Ainu, spoken by fewer than fifteen people, indigenous to Hokkaido in Japan and Sakhalin, Kuril, Khabarovsk, and Kamchatka, in Russia. There’s the Saami family of languages, spoken in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, of which many have fewer than ten speakers, and Njerep in Cameroon, where just four people ‘remember’ rather than speak the language.
And, there are some languages with just one speaker left, which will disappear with their own death, like Brazil's Apiaka and Kaixana, Indonesia’s Dampal and Take, and Chile’s Yagan.
Language types can vary dramatically, and like Ongota, can have very specific formats, like verb-object-subject, or object-verb-subject. Linguistic typology students and scholars, who have more than six-thousand global ‘recognized’ languages to keep them occupied, will also determine whether it’s isolating, synthetic, fusional, agglutinative, polysynthetic, or oligosynthetic, but we’ll leave that to the experts.
This is all quite depressing, of course, because the loss of language often equates to the erosion or extinction of one of our fascinating cultures, that are the color of our human existence. Not since the introduction of Esperanto or the creation of ‘Online’ do you hear of the arrival of a new language.
But that might be changing. There are two languages, one fairly new and evolving in the United States, the other a well-established but marginal tongue from Siberia, that might be repurposed to good advantage.
The first we’ll call Maunder and here’s an example.
“Look, having nuclear, my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer doctor John Trump at MIT, good genes, very good genes, very smart, you know, if you’re a conservative republican, if I were a liberal, if like okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world …”
I’m not sure how or even if a linguist could describe that typologically, but it seems the null-subject language bucket at least sounds appropriate. The most interesting thing about this language is how much it seems to appeal to the masses, and be absorbed as a syntactically-acceptable way to talk.
As it takes hold across the US, a second parallel language may hold the key to guiding the country along more sensibly.
Centered along the Yenisei River in West Siberia, is a Uralic language known as Khanty.
With less than ten-thousand speakers, it's a language that could use some rejuvenation, and the US might be just the place to do that, because Khanty is a little unique.
It is an evidentiality system of language. That means that speakers are required to add evidence to their statements, so that each sentence carries a marker for whether the speaker has first-hand experience of the subject or acquired the knowledge via a third-party. Particularly useful for bringing news from other places in such a vast region, Khanty speakers have an excellent guide to what's fact and what’s simply not.
As the number of Maunder speakers continue to grow, and keep the US in a state of confusion and fallacy, Khanty might just be the lingua veritas needed to give balance to the rhetoric, and hope to the people.