funny thing happened to several languages on their way to extinction
-- they were saved, pulled back from the brink by teenagers and the
Internet, of all things.
Samuel Herrera, who runs the linguistics
laboratory at the Institute of Anthropological Research in Mexico
City, found young people in southern Chile producing hip-hop videos
and posting them on YouTube using Huilliche, a language on the brink
Herrera also discovered teens in the Phillippines
and Mexico who think it's "cool" to send text messages
in regional endangered languages like Kapampangan and Huave.
Almost as soon as text messaging exploded
on the world stage as a means to reach anyone, anywhere, and anytime,
young people began to find a way to scale it back, make it more
exclusive and develop their own code or doublespeak to use on the
Shorthand and abbreviations became a popular
way to keep the "inside joke" of LOL, or "laughing
out loud," and brb, or "be right back," within the
circle. In time, though, these catchphrases reached a broader audience,
losing their cache and exclusivity. As soon as its use became widespread
and commercial, the code was no longer "cool."
That was the case earlier this year when
a crop of abbreviations common to texting and email were included
in the Oxford English Dictionary, legitimizing the language shift
caused by rapid-fire, text-based communications.
In this sense, the adoption of a discarded
language makes perfect sense, to keep texting's cachet among teens
exclusive. And linguists are pleased that dying languages are helping
teens communicate, keeping the languages alive in the process.
"This really strengthens the use
of the language," said Herrera, who is pleased to find this
naturally occurring, albeit somewhat unconventional, solution to
the problem of dying native tongues.
In fact, according to Dr. Gregory Anderson,
young people need to be the ones reviving a dying language. The
director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
in Salem, Oregon, says that somewhere between the ages of six and
25, people make a definitive decision whether or not to say to stay
or break with a language.
"If the language isn't being used
by their peer group, then they reject it categorically," Anderson
This isn't the first time that young people
played a pivotal role in technological advancement. Over a hundred
years ago, in 1900, the younger generation displayed its savvy with
the new communication device of that time -- the telegraph -- and
became the quickest and earliest adopters of Morse code.
Teenagers, with their better hand-eye
coordination, were able to send and receive telegrams at a rate
of 20 to 30 words a minute, making them perfect operators of the
new technology. The young people's mastery of the "dits"
and "dahs" of Morse code contributed to the 63 million
telegrams sent in 1900. At that time, telegrams were a big advancement,
serving as a quick way to send a brief amount of information, much
like today's text messages.
A letter from Philadelphia to Boston might
take a couple weeks, so in that respect the telegram, which was
used to convey important military and political information, was
invaluable. Historians today researching the early 1900s rely heavily
on telegrams to piece together important events, much as modern
historians are using Twitter, for example, to put together a timeline
of the Arab Spring events.
Something as simple as text messaging
can draw young people's attention back to the languages of their
elders, and projects like the YouTube channel's "Enduring Voices"
can inspire others to learn ancestral tongues to produce hip-hop
music. Connections between both the past and present echo from the
old fashioned telegram tapping out on Morse code from a century
back, to texting in another type of code entirely today.