Reclaiming the Lost DNA of Ancient Languages

Imagine for a moment that you are 80 years old (easier for some of us,  I admit, than others.)   Now imagine that you are the last person left on earth who can speak English.   No one can sit down and chat companionably with you in your mother tongue.  No one can laugh at your jokes or puns or understand what it means to “grin like a Cheshire cat.”  You are  alone, and all the cultural knowledge embedded in the English language will be lost when you die.

That,  of course,  is the predicament of many elderly speakers of aboriginal languages around the world.  The  Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, calculates, for example,  that in the United States alone,  42 percent of the 300 or languages once spoken by  aboriginal people are now extinct. And it’s not just words, grammar and syntax that are being lost:  it’s “the DNA of a culture,”  as Bruce Cole,  a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the U.S.,  once put it so aptly .

Two very cool projects that I’ve just come across (here and here),  however,  suggest that help is on the way.   In New York State,  the Unkechaug and Shinnecock Nations are joining forces with linguists at Stony Brook University to resurrect their  native tongues,  which died out some 50 to 200 years ago.

The team will be drawing on a host of written records–including an Unkechaug word list that Thomas Jefferson drew up on June 13, 1791,  when he visited the region–and what might be a tape of people speaking Unkechaug seventy years ago.   From these and from comparisons with closely related and better documented  languages in the Algonquian language family,  the team will begin reconstructing what the extinct languages were probably like.

And then there is The  Rosetta Project (thanks, Quentin Mackie, for drawing this to my attention), which is an incredible work in progress.  Inspired by the famous Rosetta Stone,  the project organizers are compiling detailed documentation on more than 1500 languages from around the world.  For each language,  they are  collecting info on grammar, pronunciation, syntax,  vocabulary,  and, when possible,  written texts such as oral narratives.  The intention is to create a massive “decoder ring” for any information they leave future generations.  But it’s clear to me that they are also collecting the basic building blocks that would allow future linguists to reclaim  lost languages.

And here’s the kicker.  Remember how I harped on yesterday about the incredibly ephemeral nature of flash drives and other  digital storage systems.  Well the people at The Rosetta Project are really on top of this.  They have stored  14,000 pages of their data on the surface of  3-inch diameter nickel disk.   There’s no digital encoding: instead the project organizers have etched photos of each page on the disk.  You’ll  need to put the little disk under a microscope,  but it’s all there for the reading.  And the disk should last for thousands of years.

Maybe it’s not too late, after all,  to recover the cultural DNA of hundreds of tribal groups around the world.


  1. Hi Heather,

    Great post! The whole “Long Now” project of which Rosetta is a spinoff is a really neat attempt to engender long-term thinking. So much of what we do is governed by short-term goals and agendas and priorities – even thinking a couple of years ahead is unusual in many spheres (think politics!). So trying to think, and act, on the millennial scale is a neat exercise and it does cast into relief some of the ways archaeologists think.

    I mean, we do tend to toss around millennia like they were nothing. Centuries are more or less a margin of error in a lot of archaeology. Do we really account for the different scales and rhythms at which human life unfolds? I don’t think we can, partly because we don’t have the mental tools yet to think with.

    Two other examples your readers might be interested in which are helping develop these tools:

    Also from the Long Now Foundation is the 10,000 year clock, a mechanical clock designed to run for 100 centuries. This is actually being built.

    Another are the messages to the distant future associated with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. Thinking about how to warn future generations away from this site when we can barely imagine their motivations or even their languages is also a sort of archaeology of the future. I can’t find a great link for these but start here and then google around – the images proposed and the thinking behind it is very cool: a combination of a petroglyph site and mortuary monument we are building deliberately for another world: the future.

    1. Both of these are immensely cool projects, Quentin. Thanks for pointing them out to all of us. I particularly like the Yucca Mountain warnings. At the rate we are going, however, polluting entire valleys in West Virginia with the debris from Mountaintop removals and poisoning rivers with waste from tar sands extraction, we’ll need to post those warnings all around the planet. It’s definitely not too soon to start thinking about this.

  2. Dan Hilborn

    Alexander Mackenzie wrote down translations and transliterations for many of the most common First Nation words he learnt during his 1793 trek to the coast.

    According to Walter Sheppe, editor of Mackenzie’s abridged journal First Man West, not a single one of those words is acknowledged as part of today’s official‘ First Nations’ languages.

  3. Hi Dan:

    I think you make a very good point here. These old words lists need to be examined very carefully by linguists to determine their authenticity. Undoubtedly some Europeans had better ears than others when it came to hearing words from aboriginal languages.

  4. Shameda

    I wonder what would have happened to me and my family if we had retained our great grandparents’ language from India. Our entire cultural understanding and behaviour have been shaped by English and sometimes, it’s like living in a limbo world…not quite belonging to one or the other. Not being ethnically related to the English, and having lost facility in an Indian language, my experiences show me that when connection to a “mother tongue” is gone, isolation is even more rampant in one’s thinking, seeing, hearing and doing. The awareness and understanding of one’s ancestral history and culture shaped by an outside language system, can be a cruel imposition of a colonizer’s views and values, oten degrading the “other” side.

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