Languages die the way many people do — at home, in silence, attended by loved ones straining to make idle conversation.
”Did you sell any baskets?” Gabriela Paterito asks her neighbor Francisco Arroyo in her vowelly Spanish. She’s in her two-room shack in Puerto Eden, a tiny fishing village on Wellington Island in the Patagonia region of southern Chile. There is a long, long silence. She’s a short woman, dense from some 70 years of life, but with a girl’s head of beautiful black hair. In the room are Francisco and a few others, among the last six speakers of Kawesqar, the language native to these parts since the last ice age.
Linguists now estimate that half of the more than 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world will become extinct by the end of this century. In reaction, there are numerous efforts to slow the die-off — from graduate students heading into the field to compile dictionaries; to charitable foundations devoted to the cause, like the Endangered Language Fund; to transnational agencies, some with melancholic names appropriate to the task, like the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages. Chile started a modest program, not long after the ugly debates surrounding Christopher Columbus in 1992, to save Kawesqar (Ka-WES-kar) and Yaghan, the last two native languages of southern Chile. But how does one salvage an ailing language when the economic advantages of, say, Spanish are all around you? And is it possible to step inside a dying language to learn whether it can be saved and, more rudely, whether it should be?
Gabriela crams another stick into her wood stove to keep us dry and warm. The rain is coming now like nails, as it does most days. The silence stretches out. You begin to feel it, like a cold draft. Three or four aching minutes of it. My boots need some examining.
” Canastos ,” mutters Francisco, repeating the Spanish word for baskets, his grunting tone suggesting a bad day. When languages die under the pressure of a dominant tongue like Spanish, there is a familiar path of retreat. The language will withdraw from the public sphere first, hiding out in the living rooms and kitchens of the fluent, where it becomes increasingly private and intimate and frail. Francisco takes a two-foot length of reedy grass and softens it by rubbing it against the stove. All around weaving begins — the distinctive Kawesqar baskets, small with long grassy handles.
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