Endangered Languages Foreseen by Linguist Thirty Years Ago

Updated on January 3, 2024 by Meg Pier

Endangered languages have been documented, preserved, and revived by Michael Krauss. He changed the nature of linguistics from being a largely theoretical academic discipline to a global movement. In this interview, conducted prior to his death in 2019, Mike recounts his career as a pioneering champion of linguistic diversity and internationally renowned scholar of Alaska Native languages.

Mike joined the faculty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1960 for what was officially intended as a two-year position teaching French and linguistics as a Carnegie Fellow.

A decade later, with support from the State of Alaska and National Science Foundation funding, Mike recruited a team of linguists dedicated to working with 20 Native languages and founded the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC). Inspired by the rapid decline in Native children learning those languages from their parents due to culturally destructive government policies, Mike lobbied state legislators, and the entire ANLC team worked closely with Native elders to develop writing systems and document vocabulary, grammar and folktales. Mike served as director of the Alaska Native Language Center from its inception in 1972 until his retirement in June 2000.

In his 1991 address to the Linguistic Society of America, Mike was among the first to create an awareness of the global problem of endangered languages. In talking with Mike, he made the point that just as we have learned that our planet needs biodiversity to survive and thrive, so too we of the human condition need intellectual diversity. Throughout his life, he was active in efforts to document Alaska’s Native languages and encourage awareness of linguistic diversity and the global problem of endangered languages.

In our conversation, I learned he and I have more than a few things in common, among those an affinity for the west coast of Ireland and underdogs. Enjoy this thought-provoking discussion with a tireless advocate for indigenous languages and a charming champion of diversity.

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Linguist Michael Krauss in 2014. Photo: University of Alaska

In Conversation with Michael Krauss, Champion of Linguistic Diversity

Meg: Could you define linguistics?

Mike: Linguistics everyone would agree is the scientific study of human languages. But there the agreement ends because it branches into two rather different concepts. One branch is the study of what all human languages have in common. In 1957 {linguist} Chomsky focused linguistics on the question of what is the basic nature of human language--what all languages have in common.

The Chomsky view of this can correctly claim that the difference between Zulu and Eskimo and Chinese and English is quite trivial and what’s really interesting is what they all have in common. Chomsky would more or less claim that all we really need is English and, say, Japanese for double-checking, as all human languages are more or less basically the same with differences that are essentially trivial.

I’ll compare it with biology. The question of what is life boils down in some sense to the nature of DNA. The micro view is that what really counts about life is what all organisms have in common. The secrets of DNA and the difference between me and some fruit fly and some white rat and some panda is still going to be basically the double helix. Nobody’s going to have a triple helix so the difference between me and a chimpanzee is quite trivial according to that view of biology.

Some would correctly say there’s no point in studying pandas for their DNA because white rats are just so much cheaper and more convenient to use. Who cares about pandas or some damn stupid spotted owl, which is either a pest or gets in the way of our logging? Yet current wisdom says that if we wipe out some useless-looking centipede, that could wreck the biosphere that we depend on for our ability to breathe and for our organisms to survive.

So I’m trying to draw the parallel of the differences. In biology, we might call them microbiology and macro biology. In some ways you could say diversity in language is as essential to our humanity as biodiversity is essential to our survival. The interest in micro linguistics or what makes all languages tick was practically exclusive, until recently. I’ve tried to make some difference in that, to pull the pendulum back to an interest also in macro linguistics.

Michael Krauss and Underdog Languages

Meg: What prompted your interest in linguistics?

Mike: I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in the ‘30s, ‘40s in a Jewish family where I heard no language other than English and maybe a little Sunday School Hebrew. I can recall that I made myself late to school one morning because walking by some work along the road, people were digging a ditch and speaking a language that was definitely not like anything I’d heard before and I remember my fascination with that. I pretended to be interested in the work itself but it was the language that fascinated me so much that I made myself late for school.

That was the first symptom you might say. Otherwise, I was always good at languages in school and for some reason always interested whether it had any actual use or not. I’ve always been interested not only in language but underdog languages and languages of minorities. While it may have been more profitable for me to learn Russian I was always attracted to endangered languages spoken by the fewer rather than the more people and by the more powerless rather than more powerful. That has also for some reason defined my life direction.

Michael Krauss
Michael Krauss. Photo: University of Alaska

I went to Columbia and then the University of Paris where I got fascinated with Celtic endangered languages. From France I went on to Ireland and ended up on a small Island off the west coast where there were still people not only who spoke Irish, but there were even a few young people my age who did not speak English. Back in the 1950s this was still true in the outlying fringes of Ireland and Galway Bay was still in those days relatively isolated. People spoke Irish and lived what was still at that time a 19th century kind of peasant existence.

I became deeply imbued with the Gaelic cause. That turned into a crossroad in my life. I was in my way becoming very integrated into life on that island and I sometimes wonder how I ever left it. In certain ways it was very, very formative.

It was a population at that time of 200-something, all stone walls and small patches, basically a subsistence life. At the time there were no gasoline engines and barely horse carts. It was mainly carrying things on your back and no electric lights or running water or anything of that kind. But a very rich life focused on values of 19th century Catholic Ireland--but people who had adopted Catholicism very much to their own culture more than the other way around and who were living a very traditional and very intellectual, very rich Gaelic life.

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Study of the Irish language was a meaningful experience & professional turning point for Krauss. Photo: Meg Pier

At the time it was still during the period of such poverty that the Brits had hardly coveted the place and had left the Gaelic language and life still vibrantly intact on that island. There were wonderful people there living a very different life from that which I’d been raised in but to which I took in such a way that it changed me and never left me.

As a result of my experience there, I got a scholarship to Harvard, where I spent one whole year. Harvard basically rubber-stamped the dissertation that I had basically written in Ireland on the phonology of the Gaelic dialect that I had learned. I’m sure there was no one in my committee who even really read my dissertation at all.

The reason I went to Harvard because it was one of the very few places in this country that had a department of Celtic languages. I’m maybe the only person that ever can say this about my Harvard career that I had more I could talk about with the custodial staff than the faculty. Certain members of the custodial staff were from western Ireland and had excellent Gaelic. They were people I could really talk about the subject of my dissertation and enjoy conversing with who were sweeping the floors of the place and not people who were writing on its blackboards. I never adjusted to academia properly.

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The Endangered Languages of The Faroe Islands

Meg: What came next?

Mike: I had a fellowship from the Scandinavian American Foundation to study Icelandic, which I did, but I didn’t feel I had an important contribution to make to Icelandic since Iceland is full of people who appreciate the language and study it and have insights about it. It’s one of the best documented and studied languages on earth.

When Norway was unified under a single king you had all these disgruntled lesser aristocrats who moved to Iceland--anybody in Norway who could write left a thousand years ago and immigrated to Iceland. From the day the first person ever set foot there, a complete record was kept of everything they did and whose sheep went into which valley and everything from the very beginning until the very end.

They still have that--Iceland is by far had the best-recorded history because nothing ever happened that wasn’t written down. Of course everybody there is thrilled about literature. I remember trying to speak to Icelanders about Faroese literature. To an Icelander, it must have been grotesque to have a snotty-nosed 20-year old telling them about the wonders of Faroese literature. Retrospectively enough, I can’t think of anything more absurd than that.

I picked up some sense from Iceland of the strength a relatively small language can have but I can’t say that I got as much out of that as I did the Faroe Island situation. There too people were very strongly interested in their own language and its cultivation. The Faroese are a relative underdog, shall we say, when it comes to Icelandic. The Faroe Islands are in between Iceland and the Shetlands where people still do speak Faroese, which is a Scandinavian language but its own independent language with its own newspapers. A flourishing language of then 30,000 some people, now pushing maybe 50,000. You can always tell a Faroe man by the cut of their trousers and by the way they walk too. Because they walk sort of slowly like they’re not really going anywhere whereas Icelanders are always walking with a purpose.

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Faroese folk dance club in Vagur, called Jomsvikingar. Photo: Erik Christensen

Icelandic and Faroese are in no way endangered languages, even though they belong to a very outlying fringe of what I would call safe languages in terms of numbers of people. Under the yoke of the Danish empire well, almost any language could survive.

The Value of Other Endangered Languages

Meg: Meaning that the yoke of other cultures presents a different scenario?

Mike: I don’t think that too many Danes have the impression that Danish is the language of all the earth and that Jesus Christ spoke Danish unlike certain other cultures assume. Even though the Danes were at the time of the foundation of Iceland among the more powerful and most feared people on earth. They were definitely a people to be reckoned with but they never had the view that we do of the universal importance of their language. They have always been, therefore, relatively cognizant of the value of other languages. The point being that the Danish did not have the same imperialistic view of their language as Brits and Americans or more recently the Russians.

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Meg: Tell me how you came to the University of Alaska.

Mike: I got a letter from the University of Alaska inviting me to apply for a new visiting professorship that they had gotten from the Carnegie Foundation to start a new discipline at that university. When I received the invitation I was beginning to feel that my time in Europe or exile from my own country was appropriate to end. I suppose I had a desire to bring myself back to my own country, where there were American languages which definitely needed the support and help of a linguist if they were going to be even documented let alone supported toward survival. And the University of Alaska, at the time, was something like an ideal, it was like an invitation from Siberia. And I became, very appropriately for that time, a volunteer to Siberia.

The Last Frontier

The University of Alaska at the time I got here had about 800 students and there were about 15,000 people living in greater Fairbanks. The university has its own history, which in certain ways begins about 1915, which is only a dozen years after the establishment of Fairbanks itself as a kind of outpost in a benighted wilderness.

fairbanks alaska
Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo: Wil Lawson from Pixabay

I mean the farthest reach of civilization, should we say, the last frontier and all of that. Fairbanks became a city and was incorporated in 1903. By that time, it had a couple of newspapers and there were some thousands of people living here mostly temporary for the gold rush. The town judge conceived of the idea of the university and in 1915 he planted the cornerstone. It opened its doors in 1922. So it’s not the youngest university in the country but it was part of you might say the triumph of American civilization over lesser cultures in a God-forsaken wilderness.

My point is only that the university developed out of this civilization with certain attitudes. Back in the ‘60s, it could be considered a gentlemanly thing to do to collect curios of inevitably passing or vanishing peoples, maybe even their languages. There were a couple of people who had actually connected that with indigenous languages and who encouraged me to do that but I naturally took to it like a duck to water and they couldn’t have stopped me.

Although there is the issue of developing a fine linguistic department on the basis of this wonderful resource -- these disappearing endangered languages -- in a day when the university was part of the system that was expunging those languages and training teachers who were the key figures in educating these people out of their language. So, it’s maybe OK to have somebody here who at the same time was recording what is being expunged – so long as he brings in his own grants for it, with overhead.

Endangered Languages, an Underground Movement

But during the ‘60s it is true that what I founded was also an underground movement that actually encouraged the use of these endangered languages in the school. Not just teach them as a curiosity or study them as something that was bound to be dispatched. In the ‘60s I was required to teach French and linguistics. Also I began a course called Special Topics: Yupik Eskimo, emceeing a group including a native speaker of Yupik, which is the largest single language, population-wise, in Alaska. For that reason in part there were more students around from that language background than any other.

That native speaker, Martha Teeluk from the lower Yukon Delta area, and a student by the name of Irene Reed, who was the closest to work with Martha, were the key figures in this first class in demonstrating the nature of this language by analyzing it live in class and showing how it worked. It’s a very extensive syffixation system. This was a class that was a great success and has continued ever since and has now grown into an undergraduate major with new native teachers and about 25 beginners and it’s a stable part of the university curriculum.

It was the beginning of the legitimization of teaching of Alaskan native languages in Alaska educational systems. It was of course not expandable into the public school--use of Alaskan native languages from the beginning of state education was forbidden. The purpose of the schools was to get rid of those languages and replace them with English, which was now by the 20th century solving the Native American problem by education rather than by genocide.

Alaska was spared the entire Wild West. I don’t think that there was ever any Alaskan native or white killed in Alaska in the form of wars or even battles between Native and the white population. There were naturally murders back and forth as there still are but there was never any genocidal campaign in Alaska except in the cultural sense.

Meg: You served as director of the Alaska Native Language Center from its inception in 1972 until your retirement in June 2000. Can you describe the Center and its mission?

Founding the Alaska Native Language Center

Mike: After 12 years at U of A, the underground developments, and the dramatic social upheavals of the 60s, civil rights, bilingual education, Vietnam etc., we managed in 1972 to lobby through Alaska’s legislature a bill to allow or even mandate the use of Alaska Native Languages in Alaska public schools, and to establish at UA Fairbanks the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC) to “study Alaska Native Languages” and to provide a sound scientific basis for their use in the schools. It further added on to the UAF budget $200,000 1972 dollars for that purpose, not an unfunded mandate!

I directed that Center from 1972 until I “retired” in 2000. During that time ANLC, with a star staff of both linguists and Native speakers produced a vast treasure of language documentation now housed in the Alaska Native Language Archive. That along with virtually everything ever written in or on those languages by others, including what had been done before, mostly by foreigners, hardly by Americans. A surprising amount had been done by the Russians in their time here, which I managed to get copied in the USSR, and later mostly by Scandinavians, and missionaries.

Endangered languages
Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska. Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks

After I retired, Alaska Native Language Center became much more compliant to academia’s priorities, producing degrees, respectably linguistic with more Chomskyan priorities which still reign supreme in most academia, to get back to your first question. The old documentation is now past, and the old staff -- some of us were misfits -- now mostly gone. Meanwhile, the languages are dying.

The last speakers of Eyak died in 2008. Only one language has young children speakers anywhere, and for the majority of Alaskan languages, the youngest speakers are all or almost all older than 70 or 80 by now. Yet now it’s becoming “politically incorrect” to call too much attention to this inconvenient reality, so I’m not very popular in certain quarters. Knowledge of these endangered languages is becoming more and more archival, in Alaska, US, and many parts of the world.

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Michael Krauss teaches an Eskimo language class at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, 1961. Seated at the table left to right are Annette Bork (partially obscured), Maggie Panek, Charles Degnan, Martha Teeluk, Irene Reed, and Ambrose Towarak. Photo: University of Alaska, Fairbanks

The Alaska Native Language Archive, now separate from and coordinate with Alaska Native Language Center, is bound to serve a crucial role for the future. Look at Hebrew, as the best-known language that for centuries had no native speakers, now the mother-tongue of millions. There are starting to be other examples, less known, e.g. Cornish, Miami I’m told.

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Meg: You are currently involved in leading a National Science Foundation study--can you describe the project and its goals?

Mike: In order to continue the very basic documentation role of Alaska Native Language Center, I got a very substantial grant from the National Science Foundation, which has always been highly sympathetic and understanding of the need for documentation of endangered languages, no matter what the reigning fashion in linguistics. NSF is where that support started for Alaska in the 1960s, and that’s where it’s back to now.

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Eskimo language workshop. Photo: University of Alaska

This grant, starting in 2007, has so far produced a detailed definitive grammar of Central Yupik, the language we started with in 1961, as well as a detailed comprehensive dictionary of that language, Alaska’s least severely endangered. Other products of the grant include the definitive comprehensive dictionary of North Slope Inupiaq Eskimo, by a native speaker; transcriptions of now-extinct Attuan Aleut; and the only major basic documentation we’re likely ever to have of two Athabaskan languages, Han and Upper Kuskokwim.

Other products of the grant include basic documentation of the Russian still spoken by a few elders on Kenai Peninsula and in Kodiak Island, directly descended from colonial Russian and transcriptions of accounts of their lives here in Alaskan Saami (Lappish) from the last two speakers from the groups sent here to teach reindeer herding 1896-1910.

Kenai peninsula
Glaciers of the Kenai Peninsula. Photo: Enrico Blasutto on Wikimedia

Soon to be completed is a comprehensive definitive dictionary of the Yupik Eskimo (“Aleut”) of Kodiak and south-central Alaska, a comparative dictionary of Athabaskan languages--bound to become the basis for all further Athabaskan lexical fieldwork, as well as a study of tones in Alaskan and neighboring languages--an important part of those languages but which many linguists can’t seem to hear. All this by American, Russian, Canadian, Japanese, and Belgian linguists, and of course Alaskan speakers. So the work goes on.

Champion of Endangered Languages

Meg: At what point do they become one of the endangered languages?

Mike: If no children are learning the language in the home it will then in a generation or so cease to be the mother tongue of any living soul. People ignore this fact all the time--nevertheless, it is clear as a bell that if you don’t speak your language to your children they’re not going to learn to speak it.

Meg: I have heard that if less than one million people speak a language it is on its way to becoming extinct.

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The Lord's Prayer in Breton language, late 19th century, Church of the Pater Noster in Jerusalem. Photo: Herve Queinnec

Mike: That was my figure for defining what languages are safe from extinction and are not safe from extinction, in terms of sheer numbers.  However, there are exceptions. For example, physical isolation--such as that of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Second, the forces that work on an endangered language both in terms of the power and the attitude that goes along with it--be the approach of that power akin to the Danes or others.

On the other hand, there were certainly more than a million speakers of Breton in France at the beginning of the 20th century. At the end there were less than a third of that and now is less than a fifth of it and dwindling all along. That language had a million speakers in living memory and now has maybe zero children speaking it. The future of the Breton language is very, very questionable.

More importantly one can certainly say that the vast, vast majority of human languages are severely endangered even if they’re still spoken by all the children today. When you look at the worldwide situation, there are still about 7,000 languages and 7 billion people. So the average world language has a million people. But the balance of that figure is extremely skewed given that the world’s median-sized language is by no means spoken by a million people. In fact, the median-sized language is spoken by less than 7,000 people--put simply, half our languages are spoken by fewer than 7,000. Further, the vast majority of our languages are spoken by a number of people far too small for that language to be safe in the world of today.

Another favorable factor for a language's survival is being politically an official language, with national support. Say there are 7,000 languages still on earth. There are now close to 200 independent countries on earth. Out of the 7,000 existing languages, there are far fewer than 200 adopted as an official language by the government of these countries. In fact, out of the many nations with English or Spanish or Arabic as the only official language, that leaves far fewer than 200 official languages on earth.

Still, the vast majority of the world’s languages have no national support at all. You add up the 10 big languages and you have maybe already 90 percent of the world’s population. The number of languages that are spoken by a million or more are roughly 200, mostly overlapping with the official ones. So that makes 95 percent of mankind’s languages likely to become extinct in this century and the next.

Consider those figures and you begin to realize the scope of language extinction. By the end of the century it will probably reach a peak and a language a week will disappear. At the rate things are going, unless there’s some miracle or vast changes take place that we can’t foresee for the good, 95 percent of our languages will be gone by the end of the next century, or maybe just 90 percent if we’re lucky.

At the end of the Neolithic age, in the beginning of agriculture, there were probably 10-20,000 languages on earth. There were just a few million people about 10,000 years ago. Out of 10 or 20,000 languages we still have 7,000–that’s not so bad. But the next couple of centuries in human history will be the end of 95 percent of those. If you’re looking at the curve of human language extinction it’s going to shoot up unmercifully.

The expansion of human population causing our extinction is very important we all recognize. But when it comes to language, with a massive collapse of linguistic diversity maybe all we’ll lose is our humanity.

Meg: I think that kind of brings us full circle.

Mike: The Tower of Babel story--that’s what it comes back to. Is it our language diversity which is causing our current existence to be so sordid? Maybe we will reach such a state of Godliness that we don’t need all these languages. Maybe mankind will attain such a stage of enlightenment that we only need a few dozen different interpretations of our human existence. And perhaps these few dozen surviving languages will more than suffice for our intellectual diversity. That could be a nice interpretation, I guess.

The Politics of Linguistics

Meg: In 1991 you addressed the Linguistics Society of America and at that time were one of the first to create an awareness of the global problem of endangered languages.

Krauss questions the Tower of Babel philosophy. Image Credit: Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikimedia Commons
Krauss questions the Tower of Babel philosophy. Image Credit: Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikimedia Commons

Mike: Yes, I pointed out that we stand to lose 90 to 95 percent of our linguistic diversity in the next 200 years. Seems like no one had noticed the obvious. But nobody’s disputed that. Pretty much accepted in the last 20 years. But what’s being done about it?

It’s a pretty big thought in a way and it is also true that when you check into a hotel in Antarctica or whatever, there will surely be orange juice and the waiter will understand your English. Or you go out into the hills and you pay 83,000 Euros to get there and the only language you’ll hear around you is Chinese or English and well, so what. If we’re very lucky, there will be a library may be full of the records and even tapes of all these old languages that were lost.

Endangered Languages Involves Politics

Somehow or another the snail darter and the spotted owl will still be around and the panda, of course, because we have shown enough wisdom to keep the biosphere just somehow balanced well enough to survive and so we will still be breathing and eating or taking pills or whatever. But it’s impossible to imagine that we’re going to wake up and the people will still be speaking these languages that are now spoken by only 7,000 people--half the languages on earth.

I’m trying to be open-minded towards the future because I ain’t got no crystal ball. All I do know is that this will be a fundamental and irreversible change in our existence.

Meg: I had no idea when I embarked on this interview about all the politics involved in language.

Mike: When I lived in Ireland in the 50s, people got their annual 10 pounds or 5 pounds per kid if you were raising them speaking the language. Now five pounds is really symbolic and it may have made a difference but I honestly don’t know. I’m not so sure that even economic revolutions can save languages. It’s got to go deeper. There are those who claim that money talks and money does. The fact that if you’re going to make more money yes, it’s true that in order to get certain kinds of official jobs in Ireland today you have to take a test for your Gaelic but that still hasn’t changed the life of the average person in Dublin.

Questioning the Future of Endangered Languages

I don’t know what it takes really to assure the survival of an endangered language. People have put a lot of thought into that in places like Ireland. The last time I visited there I got into conversations where I found myself saying maybe the best way to really to save Irish is to outlaw it on pain of public execution for speaking a single word of it. Excuse me for saying that but there are lot of people who agreed with me that the approach would probably save Irish.

There are big questions about the future of language--even those that are so-called “safe.” Bilingualism is a major answer to that. You really can learn more than one language. You can keep your own language while still enjoying American shoot ‘em ups or whatever on TV. Traditions of multilingualism can solve that problem but in the case of Gaelic in Ireland or in the case of Native American languages, there’s more to it. We’re getting into a lot of material here that would take more enlightenment than I have for today.

More about Michael Krauss and the Alaska Native Language Archive and Center.

More on the US

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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