• What is
    Language Loss?
  • What is
    Language Loss?

"Language is an archaeological vehicle, full of the remnants of dead and living pasts... The language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history."

- Russell Hoban


When a language is lost, so too is a deep cultural bond once present among a community. All languages have unique characteristics, and so in turn does their loss. Scholars, experts, and speakers agree that the loss of Lakota would mean the loss of a distinct way of looking at the world.

How much can a language influence the worldview and identity of its speakers? Though the debate is ongoing, many scholars posit that language can alter a person’s view of reality based not only on what is said, but how it is said. For example, many Native American languages do not require or even enable the type of temporal thinking used in English to communicate tense: whether you are doing something now, did it yesterday, or will do it tomorrow. This context must be otherwise communicated through detailed speech. The characteristic differences between all languages both inform and express each group’s view of reality, time, and relationships. For centuries, the Lakota culture had no written language, so instead physical locations became the repositories of important parables. Whenever such a place is mentioned, it recalls the story and wisdom associated with it.

“You might call a bend in the river, The Bend Where the Coyote Pissed on the Rock –which reminds the listener of the story about people who unwisely didn’t look around before they drank river-water, didn’t see the rock with the piss on it, and got sick. A person in the tribe must know those stories in order to be wise.” -Keith Basso

Many of these Lakota stories are still not written down and, according to Lakota elders, the stories would lose their meaning and significance if translated. The same is true for Lakota songs, riddles, jokes, and lullabies. Without the Lakota language, the meaning and the wisdom of these important places and cultural artifacts would be lost. For many members of native communities, language provides clarity in one’s identity, connecting them to the larger group in a unique relationship. Without their ancestral tongue, people often feel disconnected from their culture and community. Young people who are able to speak their ancestral language feel intimately connected to their group, and their cultural identity helps them become healthy and supportive members of their community.

All people should value endangered languages and support their protection and revitalization. Become a force for change by donating your time, talent, or resources to help fund TLC’s linguistic and educational efforts in native communities.