Dying languages, cruise ships and Yaghan

December 8, 2013

There are almost 7,000 languages in the world today. In 100 years, half of those languages will be extinct. These are the stories of the people who will die with them.

“Usana” means “ship” in Yaghan, a language that only Cristina Calderón knows by heart. For thousands of years, this language was spoken in Tierra del Fuego, in the south of Chile, by the indigenous Yaghan tribe. But now the tribe is nearly extinct: Cristina is the last remaining full-blooded Yaghan speaker and, as world’s sole holder of such a rare commodity, she often charges to speak Yaghan to tourists, who arrive each week in cruise ships.

If linguistic tourism one day took off, Cristina’s clients might well visit the rest of Chile. In the province of Osorno, they would find the last twenty speakers of Tsesungun, and in Chiloé Island, they could hear the last ten speakers of Hullichesungun. In fact, across the world, roughly 500 languages are spoken only by communities of less than 100 people.

But a headcounts of living speakers does not necessarily mean that languages are practiced between them, at least not in Tierra del Fuego. Before dying in 2005, the second-to-last speaker of Yaghan, Emelinda Acuña, was asked if she ever spoke in the old language with Cristina, who also happened to be her sister-in-law. Emelinda answered in the negative, sounding sore: “The two of us don't talk.”


Illustrations by Tomas Pichardo-Espaillat