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A Brief History of Revived Languages – From Hebrew to Wampanoag

Fares Zoghlami
A Brief History of Revived Languages – From Hebrew to Wampanoag

A revived language is one whose speakers, having experienced near or permanent language extinction as either a verbal or written language, have decided to bring it back from the dead. This can be for political reasons—for instance, if a group of people are seeking greater autonomy and self-determination by reviving their language and culture—but it can also be for religious or aesthetic reasons or simply because they believe their language has something valuable to contribute to global culture.

This process works alongside economic and cultural pressures for greater centralization and assimilation. Once a language has become marginalized, it is often perceived as “useless” by its remaining speakers. They may come to associate it with low social status and fail to pass it on to the subsequent generation.

There are over 7100 languages spoken in the world, and half of them are in danger of disappearing in the coming century. Almost 2280 recorded languages are considered vulnerable, and 250 have already died out. To date, the only successful revival of a language in history was Hebrew, which was revived by Zionists more than a century ago with the understanding that a state required a unifying language as well as a territory.

In this blog, we will look at some of the most notable revived languages (With varying degrees of success), what caused them to die out, and what steps have been taken in recent years that have caused a resurgence in those languages.

Why we should support language revival

Linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an educator at the University of Adelaide and a renowned linguist, says, “there are three reasons why people should support language revival. The first is the simple ethical matter of righting the wrongs of colonial linguistic supremacy.” He points out that before European colonizers arrived, Australia was one, if not the most, linguistically diverse area in the world. The Australian government at the time proactively tried to destroy Australia’s unique diversity, driven by the racist beliefs of politicians such as Anthony Forster, who in 1843 declared “the natives would be sooner civilized if their language was extinct.”

Zuckermann’s second reason is practical. He argues that language revival is more than just a communication issue; it’s about culture, cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, spirituality and well-being. He says, “when you lose your language, you lose your soul. When you revive your language, you don’t only revive its sounds, its words, its morphemes and its phonemes. You revive the whole shebang.”

The third reason Zuckermann cites for supporting language revival is aesthetic. In other words, he believes that the co-existence of a variety of distinct and unique languages is beautiful. Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, a University of British Columbia professor, agrees, saying that speaking her ancestral language amongst her fellow Hawaiians is about something simple yet fundamental. It’s about pride. She says that “It’s a humbling pride. It’s about accessing documents, newspapers or stories from the 1800s and understanding them differently than just reading them through an English translation.” Zuckermann is very aware that of all of his arguments, this is the one that actively garners tough reception amongst the wider public.

According to Galla, who has been teaching Hawaiian since 1997, “Hula is intimately tied up with the Hawaiian language.” The famous dance, which has risen to the status of a global phenomenon, is impossible to perform without truly understanding Hawaiian, the lyrics and the motions behind the song. Without an appreciation for those things, you are “just learning choreography”, states Galla. “You can’t dance the Hula without Hawaiian. You can dance, but it’s not Hula.”

We inspire communities by showing them that linguistic diversity is more than a mere accidental split in history. Language is essential to community identity, authority, cultural autonomy, spirituality, and mental health. American author Russell Hoban once said that “language is an archaeological vehicle; full of the remnants of dead and living pasts—lost and buried civilizations and technologies. The language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.”

Revived languages

Languages die out for many reasons, yet one of the most common is due to colonization and its harsh impact on culture. Below we will discuss some of the languages that have died out and, due to various circumstances and a strong desire by linguists and close-knit communities, have been revitalized, albeit to a fraction of the use they reached in the past.

Hebrew

The resurgence of the Hebrew language is the best example of a successful attempt to revive a dead language. The language survived into the medieval era as the language of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic literature. For almost 2,000 years, it was extinct. However, in the late 19th century, language revivalists began to bring Hebrew back into use. They achieved this by adapting the ancient language of the Torah so that it could be suitable for modern life, eventually becoming the mother tongue of all Jews in the new state of Israel, founded in 1948.

The Jews spoke Biblical Hebrew for over 1,000 years until the Romans destroyed their second Temple in 70 CE. After that event, the language slowly began to die out. By 135—after the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt—Hebrew was essentially completely dead. The remaining Jews left in Israel continued using Hebrew in studying Torah, but they used it only as a written language.

Around the 19th century, secular Jewish intellectuals—part of the Jewish Enlightenment movement known as Haskala—founded multiple Hebrew-language periodicals and newspapers to spread the language and showcase its beauty. These publications appealed to Jews interested in reconnecting with their ancient roots through a revival of Hebrew. Although it may seem obvious today that Hebrew would be used in Zionism, it wasn’t back then.

Reviving Hebrew as a national language was born from the notion that if Jews came to Israel, speaking Hebrew would save their literature. At the time, Hebrew was battling Yiddish for popularity. Still, many immigrants did not wish to speak the language of their exile – not to mention, all the Jews from the North of Africa and the Middle East who didn’t speak it felt no connection to Yiddish. The new country’s leaders wanted to ensure these people all had a connection with one another and thought that by establishing one common language, they could create unity and bond them all together.

Modern Hebrew draws on the influences that Jewish migrants brought with them to Israel, their native languages, such as Yiddish, Polish, Russian and Arabic. Throughout generations, these blended to shape the language in its modern form. According to linguists, these changes are a natural and necessary part of the process of reviving Hebrew.

Today, 90% of Israeli Jews are proficient in Hebrew, and approximately nine million speak it, including roughly five million who speak it as a native language.

Māori

The Māori language is another example of success in language revitalization. It is the ancestral tongue of the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand, who continue to pass on their language through storytelling and poetry.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, laws promoting the use of English over Māori were enacted to speed up the assimilation of indigenous people into European culture. The Education Ordinance Act of 1847 mandated school instruction in English and established boarding schools for Māori youths. The Native School Act of 1858 outlawed the use of Māori at schools.

In the 1980s, however, a group of young Māori people formed the Ngā Tamatoa (The Warriors) and campaigned for Māori to be taught in schools. The Kohanga Reo movement (Kindergartens conducted in Māori) was founded to teach the language at a young age, an effective strategy for language learning. In 1987, the Māori Language Commission was formed, leading to national reforms aimed at revitalizing the language. Each tribe created a language planning program catering to its specific circumstances; these efforts have resulted in an increased number of children being taught Māori in schools since 1996.

Today, more than one in six native Māori can speak the language, and nearly a third can understand it – a significant increase and the highest that it has been since the early 1900s.

Yola

Yola was an Anglic language once widely spoken in the baronies of Forth and Bargy in County Wexford, Ireland. It was very similar to the Fingallian language of the Fingal area, and both became extinct in the 19th century when they were replaced by modern Hiberno-English. Yola, however, was not officially extinct until the death of local fisherman Jack Devereux in 1998.

The language originated during the Norman invasion of Ireland. Many Saxon and Welsh-Flemish settlers accompanied them, speaking a form of Old English. As the centuries passed, their culture blended with that of Ireland but retained its distinctive character—and remained markedly different from modern English.

Yola was not used as a means of daily communication after the mid-19th century, but it continued to be used for liturgical purposes, and some Irish linguists wrote in Yola during the late 1800s.

Yola Farmstead, a community-run recreation of an 18th-century Forth and Bargy village, delivered a speech and performed a song in Yola at their opening ceremony, featured Yola phrases in their advertisements, and hosted events where participants could learn some of the languages from linguists and other experts. The Yola Farm has since closed down, but there have been efforts beginning in 2021 to reopen it. There also exists various groups focused on reviving the Yola language.

Not more than 140 individuals these days speak Yola fluently, including the community at the Yola Farmstead. However, it is continually taught as a second language to help expand the community and encourage them to preserve the vast Yola collection of poetry.

Scottish Gaelic

Scots Gaelic used to be the primary language in Scotland for centuries. However, in the early 17th Century, it was labelled “barbaric” by King James VI, who subsequently called on Scottish clan chiefs to send their heirs to English-speaking schools. The mass emigrations of Gaelic speakers in the 18th and 19th Centuries, especially the Battle of Culloden—the Jacobites’ failed last stand—didn’t help either. Nevertheless, Gaelic speakers remained strong in rural areas, particularly in the isle of Skye.

Over time, a lack of jobs led young people to vacate Skye and look for prospects elsewhere, gradually causing the language to fall into disuse. However, this changed with the arrival of Ian Noble, a British entrepreneur and Scottish landowner. He was committed to reviving Scotland’s Gaelic heritage and believed that the language could be used to stem depopulation in the area and become an economic driver in its own right.

He founded the college of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the isle in 1973, and decades later, his plan came to fruition as it is now one of the largest employers in the area. A third of islanders now speak Gaelic as their first or second language. The college has spawned a passionate generation of Gaelic speakers who have gone on to create jobs in industries including television, business and other fields. The college is now taking an outward approach and thinking about how to offer its Gaelic courses to visitors.

Today, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is the only college in the world that delivers its courses entirely in Gaelic. However, it isn’t the only part of Skye where the Scottish Gaelic culture can be experienced. The surrounding areas are filled with people that embrace their culture and heritage, and it has grown to be a real hub for the community, especially among progressive younger people.

Manx

The Manx language originated in the Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea. It is a Goidelic language related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and after centuries of dormancy, it is experiencing an unexpected revival.

During the 19th century, the native language of Manx was increasingly overshadowed by English. Islanders began raising their children in English, believing that Manx would soon become useless. One of the biggest obstacles was fear among old language speakers: there was a strong belief that Manx was backward, associated with poverty and something one should avoid if one wanted to make money. A common saying among old speakers was Cha jean oo cosney ping lesh y Ghailck, meaning: “You will not earn a penny with Manx.”

In the late 19th century, interest in the language was revived. This renewal was due to language enthusiasts who relied on native speakers to learn Manx.

Brian Stowell, a linguist and one of the most prominent pioneers in the revival of the Manx language, learned the language after reading an article about a man lamenting its rapid decline. Stowell joined him, and along with several other people, they spent weekends driving around the island listening to old tape recordings.

Adrian Cain, the Manx Language officer, has also been instrumental in bringing awareness to the language by utilizing modern technologies, such as YouTube videos and podcasts, as well as social media, such as Twitter. He has also recently produced a Manx language app for smartphones that has been downloaded thousands of times.

“My role is outside the education system, and we are encouraging more adults to learn the language,” says Cain. He added that using new technologies makes learning Manx much more accessible. The language’s popularity has been growing steadily; in 2021, there were over two thousand fluent Manx speakers.

Cornish

Cornish, the language of Cornwall, which is closely related to Welsh, became extinct following the Protestant Reformation but lingered on in rural parts of West Cornwall as a spoken tongue well into the late 1700s. However, it has been revived by enthusiasts who published books and articles in Cornish (using the old orthography) to help others learn the language. These efforts continue today with some disputes about spelling and which variety of Cornish should be used.

Literature from the Medieval and Tudor periods, and fragments, including grammars, from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries survived and led to the Celtic Revival, where a small group of enthusiasts reconstructed Cornish as part of a more significant effort to preserve Celtic languages. These revivalists borrowed heavily from Welsh and Breton in order to construct the modern Cornish language.

Although present-day Cornish has few native speakers, it does have a prominent number of fluent adult second-language speakers. The number of Cornish speakers is difficult to estimate, but it is believed that around 500 individuals have a degree of fluency in the language, thanks to some local schools teaching it as a second language.

Hawaiian

Before the arrival of Europeans, Hawaiian was a strictly oral language used only to communicate between people on the Hawaiian Islands. After the islands were “discovered” by Europeans in the late 18th century, followed by the arrival of Americans in the early 19th, English became the official language and gradually replaced Hawaiian as the primary form of communication. The only exception is Niʻihau, one of the seven inhabited islands, where Hawaiian has never been displaced and is still used almost exclusively.

Hawaiians were among the most literate people in the world in the 19th century. Many newspapers were published, several religious and literary works were translated into Hawaiian, and they transcribed a wealth of traditional oral literature. At the same time, however, the Hawaiian people were being devastated by excessive Western colonization. Diseases brought by colonizers reduced the Hawaiian population from around 300,000 in 1778 to approximately 50,000 a century later. Traditional language expressions and art forms, such as the hula, were repressed due to pressure from the colonizers who viewed these cultural expressions as “foul” and “idolatrous”.

With the Hawaiian monarchy overthrown in 1893 and U.S.-backed business people controlling Hawaii, English gradually replaced Hawaiian as a language of instruction in the schools. The final blow was delivered when Hawaii became a territory of the United States five years later. The Hawaiian language was subsequently banned from the schools, and many Hawaiians were beaten for speaking it. By the 1980s, there were fewer than two thousand native speakers, with only around twenty of them under the age of 18.

The decline of the Hawaiian language caused significant concern among the small number of pure Hawaiians and the much larger number of part-Hawaiians. A renaissance movement began in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a more considerable resurgence of interest in Native American heritage, paralleling similar international movements.

Hawaiian was officially recognized as an official language in 1978 – alongside English. The number of college students studying Hawaiian-language classes increased from 27 to 1,277 from 1961 to 1992. In 1984, a group of Hawaiian language scholars and community leaders established the Hawaiian medium Pünana Leo (Voice Nest) pre-schools and convinced legislators to overturn the ban on using Hawaiian as a medium of education.

With the increase in education, the Pacific region might seek to establish more cross-Pacific ties, with Hawaiians communicating in Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages with the Māori, Tongan, Tahitian, Samoan, and other Pacific peoples. Such an undertaking would unite these regions with similar shared cultures and experiences.

Wampanoag

Wampanoag is a language spoken by the people of the same name in Massachusetts, United States. In the first decade after the English colonists established themselves in Massachusetts, they saw it as their mission to convert Native Americans to Christianity. For that purpose, shortly after the 1636 founding of Harvard University, the Indian College was established there. The Indian College had a press, imported from England, which was used to produce the first Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere, the Eliot Indian Bible. When the Wampanoag language eventually died out, this Bible would be instrumental in bringing it back to life.

Another important set of texts was a collection of handwritten deeds to lands throughout Massachusetts, dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These documents were signed by Wampanoag elders and included Wampanoag-language entries written in the Latin alphabet. One such document is the original deed to the town of Eastham, which hangs today in the town administrator’s office.

In the 1990s, Jesse Little Doe Baird, a Mashpee Wampanoag, worked with linguists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to reconstruct the language. Using the Wampanoag texts and other indigenous languages that were still spoken, Baird developed instructional materials and brought the language back into common use among tribe members. Baird’s daughter, Mae, was this generation’s first native speaker of the language.

The project has seen children speaking the language fluently for the first time in over a hundred years. As of 2021, there are fifteen proficient second-language speakers and around 600 second-language learners.

Conclusion

Although English has had a powerful influence on the global language landscape, it pales in comparison to the impact of the language’s spread on minority languages and their cultures and people. English’s dominance has made non-English speakers aware of their own linguistic heritage and given some of them the desire to share it with the world. With people of various backgrounds working hard to ensure that these languages don’t fade into history books, there is hope that a few more languages might be brought back from the dead among niche linguistic groups.

We hope you enjoyed this exploration into revived languages. If it sparked your interest in the complicated course that language has charted across continents, then check out our blogs about the history of the written language and how we keep constructing new languages.

We may not offer translation services for Yola and Gaelic (Yet!). Still, we do have an ever-growing team of excellent natural language translators available in over 60 other languages to solve any translation or localization request you might have.

 

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