Arts, Culture & Media

The World in Words live: From Ainu to Zaza

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Third-grader Haveo Maka'imoku with her brother. Haveo learns entirely in Hawaiian at a school in Hilo, Hawaii. At home, she speaks Hawaiian with mother, who attended one of the first Hawaiian language pre-schools founded in the 1980s.


Nina Porzucki

It's common knowledge that languages are dying at an alarming rate. 

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What can we do about it? People have been trying to save languages for decades, usually without success. But recently, there have been some hopeful signs. 

Bringing back a language is a massive challenge where the odds are stacked against you.

The language revitalization movement, however, is growing up. Activists have identified the approaches that may work. They share solutions among themselves and make fewer mistakes. 

Nina Porzucki and I explored these questions at a recording of The World in Words, in front of a live audience at the New York Public Library. 

We heard from various guests, in person and on tape, about Ainu, Shinnecock, Mustang, Irish, Hawaiian and, yes, Zaza. Plus, there was a singalong and a dodgy joke or two.

Podcast Contents

00:40 Introduction from Denise Hibay, head of Collection Development at the New York Public Library.

2:08 Guess the accent.

Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki at the New York Public Library.


Isis Madrid

 3:12 Shout out the name of your first language.

3:40 Patrick's linguistic muttishness.

4:06 Nina's linguistic muttishness.

5:20 How many languages do humans need?

5:45 Our language jokes. Take 'em or leave 'em.

7:08 Right now a ton of languages are stuck in the past.

7:24 Like the Shinnecock of Long Island, NY. (Here's our story on the Shinnecock.)  

8:20 Ainu, one of the original languages of Japan. 

12:06 Nobody knows where the Ainu language, or the people, came from. (Here's a lengthier treatment we did on the Ainu language.)

16:35 Folklore that meant so much to the Ainu that some could recall entire epic poems in a language they otherwise didn't understand. 

Maki Sekine of Nibutani, Japan, is learning Ainu, the native tongue of her ancestors. 


Patrick Cox

17:45 Nina and Patrick have questions for Daniel Kaufman, founder and executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance. 

19:30 Is there a danger that we in the English-speaking world are documenting and trying to save endangered languages just to make us feel enlightened?

22:10 Do outsiders have a role to play? Does it help to be a "double outsider" — to both the linguistic group and to the dominant culture that surrounds it?

24:03 Is there a downside to learning in your native tongue if that stops you learning more widely-spoken languages?

26:47 Writer and musician Alina Simone takes center stage. Alina takes us to America's "most diverse neighborhood," Jackson Heights in Queens, New York.

27:44 Who speaks Mustang? (Alina writes about Mustang here.)

28:05 Nawang Guring has become a custodian of Mustang in New York City.

29:21 Confusion over a car with a familar name. 

31:50 A Mustang song.

32:28 The failure (until recently) of the Irish language revival. (See our story on Irish here.)

Patrick introduces his dad who learned Irish at school but retained very little of it. 


Isis Madrid

33:55 The only phrase Patrick's Dad remembers after more than 10 years of learning Irish at school.

34:35 Nina takes us to Hawaii. 

35:25 The ubiquity of "Aloha" and "Mahalo."

36:00 A little Hawaiian history, and how the language nearly vanished.

37:40 The Hawaiian Lexicon Committee. 

38:50 The Hawaiian word for transmitting the language from one generation to the next.  

41:05 Third-grader Haveo Maka'imoku, a native speaker of Hawaiian, is a product of the language revival. 

41:00 Haveo's mother and grandmother talk about the pioneering days of re-establishing Hawaiian. 

42:40 "What language are you speaking? ... Is that Samoan?"

44:50 "We're halfway there."

45:57 Garifuna speaker and musician James Lovell. 

James Lovell brings the Garifuna language to children through songs. 


Courtesy of James Lovell

47:28 "I ... use music to teach the language to the children."

49:25 James sings.

54:25 James teaches us to sing in Garifuna. 

55:30 We are all fluent. Ish.

58:05 Our accent quiz revealed. 

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National Endowment for the Humanities

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities