Despite their important role in strengthening cultures and communities, languages are fragile things. When generation stop speaking them to their children, when spoken words aren’t recorded in writing, there’s no way to retrieve the knowledge and rhythm of life that is lost. The last fluent speaker of Wukchumni, a language spoken by a Yokuts tribe with only a couple hundred members in California, has spent seven years working with her daughter on the language’s first dictionary.
A short documentary film by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee of the Global Oneness Project profiles Marie Wilcox and her daughter Jennifer in their quiet San Joaquin Valley home. Recently shared by National Geographic on their Short Film Showcase, “Marie’s Dictionary” is an intimate look at how one person suddenly found herself at the end of hundreds of years of history, and late in life began to write it all down on scraps of paper, teaching herself how to use a computer to transcribe the words, and recording them orally with her grandson.
The film states that in the US there are more than 130 endangered indigenous languages, some on the edge of extinction. On its Enduring Voices interactive platform on vanishing languages, National Geographic states that by the year 2100 “more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth — many of them not yet recorded — may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.”
Wilcox, born in 1933, learned Wukchumni from her grandparents, but even by that generation many indigenous people in the United States weren’t talking in their tribal tongues. Assimilation efforts and boarding schools started in the 19th century that were strictly English-speaking obliterated much of that knowledge. And recent bills like last year’s Native American Languages Reauthorization Act and Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act failed to get much traction in Congress. There are some successful academic initiatives, though. The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary Project was started by faculty and students in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and receives support from the National Science Foundation’s Endangered Languages program. Some colleges include endangered languages in their curricula, like the University of Oklahoma — which, since 1991, has offered courses in languages including Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Kiowa. But much of the effort to preserve and recover these languages is grassroots and comes down to people like Wilcox working in their homes or in community centers.
“I’m uncertain about my language and who wants to keep it alive,” Wilcox admits in the video. “No one seems to want to learn, it’s sad.” And without much legislative and widespread support, languages like hers may turn to silence, without anyone hearing them go.