What happens when a language is on the brink of expiration? When almost all those who speak it are well over the hill and not much interested in transmitting their linguistic knowledge to the youth? This is the current state of the American-Indian Ojibwe language, at least concerning the dialects spoken in the US. Whereas over 50,000 Ojibwe speakers still exist across the border in Canada, in the US those numbers have fallen to well below 10,000, largely thanks to forced assimilation methods in the 20th Century which saw local Indian children shipped off to state boarding schools and stigmatised for speaking Ojibwe.
This particular case of language death however is far from unique. It is estimated that something like 2 languages die with their last speakers every month. Linguists attempting to catalog and record these disappearing tongues are met with a myriad of obstacles, the least of which is coming across cases like Ayapaneco where the last two speakers refuse to talk to one another. For many languages it already is or soon will be too late, and with their demise are also lost great stores of cultural knowledge. In the case of Ojibwe, the constant personification of nature, everything from thunder to trees to the moon (referred to as ‘grandmother’), surely serves to create a closer tie to the natural world and a lesser propensity towards selfish use and destruction. As an anecdote, the phrase “Where is Grandmother?” in Ojibwe can equally mean “Have you seen the moon out?”.
So the Ojibwe communities of the North American Lakes are fighting back. A few younger members have gone out of their way (and to Princeton), to learn, study and transmit the language of their tribe. A documentary called ‘Restoring the Ojibwe Language‘ has even been made, recording the slow process of setting up Ojibwe schools where second-language teachers sit in classrooms with mother-tongue Ojibwe elders to give lessons in Ojibwe to young children. There is a national curriculum to follow, but no books or resources in Ojibwe – everything must be created from scratch.
It can seem like an uphill struggle, but this immersion method of language learning has so far proven to be the most effective, and the Ojibwe communities have taken their inspiration from the success stories of Hawaiian and Maori, where language death was prevented and largely reversed by opening educational programs in these native languages. They continue to record and transmit their cultural heritage and have embraced the need to adapt their ancient tongue to new circumstances. Finding Ojibwe terms for everything from a camera tripod to a phone app is essential to keep the language alive and relevant.
And speaking of apps, there are two available for finding out more about Ojibwe: “Ojibway Language and People”, and “Neechee” (not in English). You can also listen to an Ojibwe podcast if you so wish to start learning too and combat a little language death yourself.