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Indigenous Peoples Resources: Languages

Indigenous Language

An indigenous language or autochthonous language, is a language that is native to a region and spoken by indigenous people. This language is from a linguistically distinct community that originated in that area. At present, 96% of the world's approximately 6,700 languages are spoken by only 3% of the world's population. Although indigenous people make up less than 6% of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world's languages. 

Conservative estimates suggest that more than half of the world's languages will become extinct by 2100. Other calculations predict that up to 95% of the world's languages may become extinct or seriously endangered by the end of the century, with the indigenous languages being the majority of the languages under threat. The disappearance of indigenous languages is for various reasons, which includes the mass extinction of entire communities by natural disaster or genocide, aging communities in which the language is not passed on, and oppressive language planning policies that are actively seeking to eradicate indigenous languages. Many indigenous people worldwide have stopped passing on their ancestral languages to next generation. Instead, they have adopted the majority language as part of their acculturation into the majority culture. Moreover, many indigenous languages have been subject to linguicide (language killing).

While some indigenous peoples are successful at revitalizing and developing their languages such as Native Hawaiians, which was on the brink of extinction in the 1970s and was re-established an an official language in 1978, others are fighting a losing battle. Although most governments are aware of the language crisis and have introduced legislation, policies and programs to address it. However, greater efforts are needed. Lack of resources is frequently cited as a reason for inadequate actions. Funding is often only provided for the recording of languages, which includes transcribed, translated, and annotated audiovisual recordings and only limited funds are allocated to language revitalization programs. 

In recognizing their vulnerability, the United Nations proclaimed 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to "draw attention to the critical lost of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages." 

Ohlone Languages

The Ohlone languages, also known as Costanoan, are a small family of indigenous languages spoken by the Onlone people. Ohlone comprises of eight varieties: Awaswas, Chalon, Chochenyo, Karkin, Mutsun, Ramaytush, Rumsen, and Tamyen. While the known languages are quite distinct, intermediate dialects may have been lost as local groups gathered at the missions. Although the last native speakers of Ohlone languages died by the 1950s, Chochenyo, Mutsun, and Rumsend are now in a state of revival as learned by records. 

  • Awaswas or Santa Cruz, was historically spoken by the Awaswas people. The Awaswas lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains and along the coast of present day Santa Cruz County from present day Davenport to Aptos. Awaswas became the main language spoken at the Mission Santa Cruz.
  • Chalon was spoken by the Chalon people who lived in Northern California. Also called Soledad, it belongs to one of the Ohlone languages of the Utian family.
  • Chochenyo is the spoken language of the Chochenyo people. The final native speaker of the language was Jose Guzman, who passed away in 1934 in Niles, California. 
  • Karkin was spoken in north central California, but by the 1950s, there were no more native speakers. The language was spoken by the Karkin people who lived in the Carquinez Strait region in the northeast portion of the San Francisco Bay. 
  • Mutsun was the primary language of the Ohlone people living in the Mission San Juan Bautista area. Maria Ascencion Solorsano De Garcia y De Cervantes was the last known fluent speaker of Mutsun. 
  • Ramaytush was spoken by the Ramaytush people who inhabited the San Francisco Peninsula between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Ramaytush is a dialect or language within the Ohlone Branch of the Utian Family.
  • Rumsen language was spoken by the Rumsen people of Northern California. The last fluent speaker of Rumsen was Isabel Meadows, who passed away in 1939. Notes taken by linguist John Peabody Harrington during the last years of Meadow's life now constitute the foundation for current linguistic research and revitalization efforts on the Rumsen language.
  • Tamyen/Tamien  was the primary language that Natives spoke at the first and second Mission Santa Clara. 


Ohlone Languages Map

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