Presented to the Club 2005
by Martin C. Langeveld
In 1609, the Dutch ship Halve Maen, or Half Moon, searching for the Northwest passage, sailed up the Hudson River. It had been chartered by the Dutch East Indies Company, carried a mixed Dutch-English crew, and was under the command of a hired Englishman, Henry Hudson. Fifteen years later, in 1624, acting on Hudson’s reports, the Dutch established the colony of New Netherland, centered on Manhattan, with an outpost in present-day Albany. Quickly thereafter, the Dutch set up additional outposts and laid claim to territory stretching from Delaware Bay to the Connecticut River, encompassing all of present-day New York State and New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut.
The New Amsterdam colony was, from its very beginnings, the start of the “melting pot” that American society would eventually become. Half of the residents of New Netherland were Dutch, but the rest included countrymen of most European nations as well as Africans, both free and slaves. In contrast to the New England colonies with their strict religious monoculture, the Dutch tolerated settlers from a variety of religious backgrounds, including Jews. Their society included not only upright citizens but also an underculture of “pirates, prostitutes, smugglers, and business sharks.” A multitude of languages was spoken on the island of Manhattan in those early days, just as one can experience on the streets of New York today.
The Dutch lost control of their colony in 1664, when the English took over, without firing a shot, during one of the periodic Anglo-Dutch wars of that century. However, the Dutch did not go away after the English takeover, nor did their culture fade away. In fact, despite the fact that only a tiny minority of immigrants to the New York region after 1664 came from the Netherlands, the Dutch language continued to be widely spoken in the New York region for over 200 years. Not until 1764 was English used to preach in New York’s Dutch Reformed churches. President Martin Van Buren (born in 1782 not far from here in Kinderhook and elected in 1836) spoke Dutch at home with his wife. The first 20th century president, Theodore Roosevelt, grew up hearing his grandparents speak Dutch at the dinner table in New York City in the 1860s. Sojourner Truth, the anti-slavery orator and associate of Frederick Douglass, was born as a slave in Ulster County, New York about 1797, and grew up speaking nothing but Dutch until she was eleven years old. Dutch was spoken in parts of Brooklyn into the mid 1800s and is quite likely the origin of the so-called Brooklyn accent.
Closer to the present, the Ramapough Lenapes or Ramapough Mountain Indians*, a clan of mixed black, Indian and Dutch heritage still live in the Ramapo Hills of New Jersey. They spoke a bastardized form of Dutch, which still had some 200 speakers in 1910. This Jersey Dutch died out sometime between the 1920s and 1950s, although some Dutch-derived expressions apparently survive among their elders. Researchers in 1910 as well as in recent years found that some of them still knew a nursery rhyme called Trippe Trappe Troontjes, which was also mentioned by Teddy Roosevelt as the one piece of Dutch he remembered learnning from his grandmother; and on one of his African trips Roosevelt discovered that it was also known by the South African boers who had carried it there from Holland 300 years before.
In the early 20th century, Dutch researchers found other surviving pockets of Dutch descended directly from that of the colonial settlers of New Amsterdam, in the Hudson Valley as far north as Schenectady. I have found at least anecdotal evidence of families in the Catskills who spoke Dutch on a daily basis into the 1940s or 50s. So the language survived nearly three full centuries after the end of Dutch influence in North America. And who knows, it seems quite likely that somewhere in New York or New Jersey, there still lives a geezer or two who learned, on their mother’s knee, a smattering of that colonial Dutch.
Although it eventually died out, the survival of Dutch over such long time against all odds raises some interesting questions. Why did Dutch hang on, when the languages of other immigrants, like the Germans, Italians and Poles, typically disappear within a generation or two? And where else, in the world, can we find pockets in which a language survives against improbable odds and without constant refreshment from the mother country? Perhaps most importantly, are there lessons in these examples that may help preserve minority languages that are rapidly disappearing in all parts of the world?
There are certainly other pockets of language survival. In the U. S., a prime example is the survival of a form of French among the Louisiana Cajuns, who are mainly Creoles descended in part from French-speaking Acadians who fled to the New Orleans region from Nova Scotia beginning about 1715.
Throughout Europe and other parts of the world there are Gypsies, once mostly nomadic, today mostly settled, speaking a language called Rom, which is most closely related to Hindi and Punjabi languages of India. This tongue has survived with the wanderings of the Gypsies for about 1,000 years.
In the Jewish diaspora, the best-known language survival is Yiddish, but among Sephardic Jews, descendants of those expelled from Spain in the 1492, a form of Spanish called Ladino survived for 500 years in various communities, including parts of Turkey Bulgaria, Greece, the Balkans, other countries around the Mediterranean, as well as England and the Netherlands. Where it has survived, speakers of modern Spanish encountering it have likened it to a modern English speaker discovering a community that speaks Elizabethan English. Later migrations have carried Ladino to Israel and to U. S. Jewish communities including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Florida. Ladino has about 160,000 speakers today, world-wide.
Other examples can be cited: Maori, the language of native New Zealanders – it’s in decline, but the desire to preserve native culture will probably preserve it; in Great Britain, Welsh is retained as a second language by many Welsh natives, if only as a point of regional pride.
All of these are examples of fairly robust survivals, among sizable communities who maintain their language by living in settled or nomadic communities, by maintaining a distinct culture, and by actively teaching their language to children.
In other instances, languages are surviving in an academic fashion, in the absence of a strong community, and being learned only by adults interested in their heritage. As an example, in Cornwall, England, the last monoglot speaker of which died in 1777, an active revival effort has produced three or four hundred fluent speakers and several thousand adherents, but the language is clearly surviving only through an active effort by enthusiasts, an heirloom, not a naturally spoken mother tongue.
Mark Abley, a Canadian journalist, has published a book called Spoken Here, an examination of the state of the world’s 6,912 surviving languages. He quotes linguists who estimate that by 2100, as few as 10 percent of these will survive. That means the disappearance, for the next century, of about one language per week. Not all linguists agree with the 90 percent extinction estimate, but even the most optimistic suggest a 50 percent rate – only one language gone every two weeks. By comparison, estimates of the extinction rate for biological species over the next 100 years range from an optimistic 2 percent to a pessimistic 20 percent.
It’s reasonable to ask whether the survival of a language matters as much as the survival of a species. Abley, of course, argues that it does. When a language disappears, very often what disappears with it is the ability to think exactly in the way of native speakers of that tongue. Every language, with its idioms, rhythms, unique words and inflections, crystallizes a way of perceiving the world. Abley provides examples such as the Papua New Guinea language that has no separate words for blue and green, but has separate words for two shades of yellow that are virtually identical to outsiders, but distinguishing between them is important in that native culture.
Papua New Guinea comes up often in discussions of threatened languages, because among its population of less 5 million people it has 820 indigenous languages, more than any other nation on earth, and in fact, more than one-eighth of the world’s languages are found there. Papua New Guinea is followed by Indonesia, with 737, Nigeria, with 510, India with 415, Mexico, with 291, Cameroon, with 279, China, with 235, Australia, with 231, Republic of the Congo, with 214, Brazil with 188, the Philippines, with 171 and the United States, ranking 12th with 162. The nations of Europe, combined, have 239. (All of these numbers come from Ethnologue, a print and online language encyclopedia.) Half of all the world’s languages are spoken in the first eight countries mentioned, and it’s interesting to note that many of the countries with high numbers of endemic languages also have high levels of biodiversity in terms of types of endemic higher vertebrates and flowering plants. This suggests that with the loss of whole languages in such areas, the world may also lose much native knowledge of biological habitats and how to sustain them.
In many cases, it may simply be too late to save a language. More than 25% of all the languages in the world have fewer than 1000 speakers. Many of the most threatened languages are also poorly documented, and even if they were fully recorded before they disappear, bringing a language back depends on at least some survival of the remainder of the culture, because without this, there is no point of reference on which survivors of the ethnic group can build.
Is it realistic, then, to attempt to slow down the rate of language extinction? Are there positive steps that societies and governments can take, not just to prop up or document failing languages, but to nurture them? The most language-diverse nation, Papua New Guinea, a former colony of Great Britain and Australia which gained independence in 1975, offers the world a surprising example. Of its 823 languages, in 2001, 380 were being used in teaching the early grades of primary schools, and there were plans to add 90 more. (By the way another 300 or so languages are spoken on the other half of the island of New Guinea, Iran Jaya, which is part of Indonesia, meaning that about one-fifth of the world’s languages are spoken on this single island – it’s the world’s second largest island, about 15% larger than Texas.) The Papua New Guinea language program, developed beginning after independence and formalized in 1989, has had surprising results: the literacy rate has increased, not only in native languages but in the common language, English. Sixth grade test results have increased considerably compared to the former system of English immersion at all levels of primary school. Parents have become more willing to send their children to school; dropout rates have decreased, and more girls are staying in school. The choice of language for the initial grades is up to each local community.
Papua New Guinea offers schooling in about half its languages. In the U.S, with 162 indigenous languages, schooling is offered in a much smaller proportion – in fact, children are learning only about 20 of the surviving native languages in the US. The apparently enlightened policy in Papua New Guinea stems from the fact that none of the 800-plus language groups have anything approaching political dominance, so a set of policies has evolved that places a high value on mutual respect among the language groups and on the rights of groups to education and information in their own language. Consequently, the island nation has seen the extinction of only 10 of its native languages, although another 22 are on the brink. By contrast, in the United States 73 native languages are now extinct, and 68 more are listed as nearly extinct, typically with only a dozen or fewer known speakers. In Alaska alone, there are 20 indigenous languages, only two of which are now being learned by children as a first language at home. In Hawaii, of 240,000 native Hawaiians, only 500 learned Hawaiian as a first language, and all of these are older adults. A century ago, there were 37,000. Worldwide, 516 languages are in the nearly extinct category, so the U.S. accounts for almost 15 percent of those. The problem in the U.S. is not so much the pressure for English-only and Official English, as the lack of interest in, and support for, helping native American groups preserve their heritage.
By the way, the successful approach in Papua New Guinea sheds some light on the mystery of the survival of Colonial Dutch in the New York area. There, the speakers of Dutch maintained it for generations by making a point of teaching it first to their children, AND using it in rural schools and churches. Only after American independence did an English-only bureaucracy begin to force out the practice, in Albany, of carrying out city government work in Dutch.
Elsewhere in the world, various approaches aim to preserve languages in decline. Most of the major Native American tribal organizations are supporting language preservation initiatives. In Oaxaca, Mexico, the Native Literacy Center, supported by the International Literacy Insitute, aims to preserve native languages by encouraging the development of literature in those languages.and adapting computers so they can be used for that purpose.
Is there a contrary side to the idea that most of the surviving linguistic heritage of the world is worth preserving, not just by recording and documenting languages, but by encouraging native speakers to continue to use languages that will never be spoken outside of a single village or group of villages, as is being done by the Papuans? We need to consider the Papuan example to be an experiment because there has to date been no formal evaluation of the results of their program. It has its roots in a UNESCO policy formulated in 1951, recommending that children have an opportunity for education in the vernacular. This policy received immediate criticism on the basis that while emphasis on the vernacular might have psychological and educational advantages, it could result in economic and social disadvantages. For the next 40 years, even linguists who subscribed to education in the vernacular recommended that a language should have at least 10,000 speakers in order to be used in schools. Part of the argument is that it can be very difficult to adapt a language with a very small number of speakers to a standard system of education. In Papua New Guinea, this argument is turned on its head by the idea that the initial language used in education needs to relate to the child’s own culture. For the first three years of education, the Papuans have discovered, the child’s own language is best for communicating the concepts the child needs to know. Because teachers in the vernacular are paid much less than teachers using English, it is also much less expensive to begin a child’s education in the vernacular. A byproduct of the Papuan system is that multilingualism is the norm – most adults speak one or two local languages, plus one of the two pidgin lingua francas, plus the official language English if they continue their education. Still, there may not be a good argument in favor of preserving every minority language, especially in instances where speakers regard the effort as something of a hobby rather than a piece of preserving their culture – an example might be the preservation of Cornish in Britain – or even the movement promoting the artificial language Esperanto -- but enthusiasts have recently been bringing it back. While it is not very politically correct to argue against language preservation, contrarians point also to the fact that speakers of minority languages will simply never find higher education, medical, scientific or technical information in their native tongue, nor will they be able to carry on commerce or communicate on the internet without learning a common language. The survival of languages that exist in small geographic pockets may be possible only through isolation, lack of mobility, and even lack of literacy on the part of its speakers. In addition, the arguments are made that not all culture is worth preserving, and that all languages change over time – ultimately extinction is part of the change.
A linguist with a sense of humor once said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. I am a native speaker of Dutch, not English, and as a child I also learned a Dutch dialect that is virtually extinct today. Official Dutch is really an artificial amalgam, codified in the 19th century, that bridges most of the dialects spoken in the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium. The dialect I learned is virtually useless outside the old-age homes on the island of Texel (although a hobbyist preservation effort is being made) and Dutch itself is a language that’s pretty useless outside of the Netherlands. Even in the Netherlands, one can get along perfectly well without speaking Dutch, as many of our Pittsfield GE Plastics executives have discovered during their stints in Bergen op Zoom. The Dutch language seems to have more English words incorporated in it every time I am exposed to it. It seems to me that any approach that results in an individual learning more than a single language is preferable to a societally imposed monocultural, monolinguistic system. Perhaps the Dutch offer one of the likely solutions to the problem of language extinction: multilingualism. It’s hard to find a person in Holland who does not speak one or two foreign languages fairly fluently. In Holland, speaking several languages is a fact of life, a requirement for economic survival. In the U. S., and other places where a dominant language forces linguistic minorities into extinction, not only is multilingualism not considered necessary, but there is often a clear prejudice against those who speak another language. It may well be necessary for the world to relegate a good many languages currently labeled “nearly extinct” to archival status. But, clearly, in order for the world’s dying minority languages to have a chance, it’s important to persuade the majorities to tolerate and to encourage the use of a variety of tongues in their midst.
*Historically this group was referred to as the Jackson Whites, but only by outsiders. The name is now considered to have racial overtones. See comments on this subject which prompted an update of the original post. See also a summary of the controversy surrounding the name in the Wikipedia entry for Ramapough Mountain Indians.