Tag Archives: endangered language

When New Yorker Rose Monintja speaks her native tongue, the memories of her rural Indonesian upbringing flood back

Rose and Alfrits Monintja outside of their home in the New York City borough of Queens. The Monintjas are originally from the village of Sonder in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are among an estimated 100,000 people who speak the disappearing language Tontemboan. Photo: Bruce Wallace

Rose and Alfrits Monintja outside of their home in the New York City borough of Queens. The Monintjas are originally from the village of Sonder in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and are among an estimated 100,000 people who speak the disappearing language Tontemboan. Photo: Bruce Wallace

Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Bruce Wallace…

Manhattan’s East Village has a storied literary past, but on a recent Sunday, there was a different sort of bookish chatter in the neighborhood.

A group had gathered to celebrate the literary traditions of Indonesia–specifically the traditions of five of that country’s nearly 800 languages. It was the first in a series of events put together by a group called the Endangered Language Alliance to shine light on the literature of disappearing languages – ones that have a shrinking number of native speakers.

Tontemboan is the most endangered of the five languages — today it’s spoken by somewhere around 100,000 people. Like most disappearing languages, it’s not being passed along to younger generations.

Rose Monintja, a native speaker, read “The Story of Lumimuut and Toar,” which, like a lot of creation myths, is a strange one. It involves a crow and a perspiring stone, a couple handfuls of dirt magically turning into an island, and two main characters that are part Adam-and-Eve and part Oedipus.

“Our parents, they speak Tontemboan, “Monintja says. “But in the school I didn’t learn Tontemboan. In the school: Indonesian language.”

She says her Tontemboan-speaking parents actually encouraged her to learn Bahasa Indonesia—the country’s national language. Her parents thought it was key to their kids getting a better education than they had.

She and her husband Alfrits both left the thousand-person village they grew up in, moving first to a provincial capital, then to Jakarta. In the mid-90s they moved to Queens, an immigrant-rich borough in New York City. They both still understand Tontemboan, but their speaking is a little rusty.

The stories they’ve been asked to read by the Endangered Language Alliance are actually not known today among native speakers—they’ve been gathering dust in a study put together 100 years ago by a Dutch missionary.

“Many of these missionaries had a real authentic interest in the religious beliefs and the spiritual life of the people they were trying to convert. And, ironically, now our only window into that world is through their work,” says Daniel Kaufman, a specialist in Indonesian languages and founder of the Endangered Language Alliance.

The Dutch study collected tons of information about the Tontemboan language, but, since it’s written in Dutch, it’s been inaccessible to Tontemboan speakers. Kaufman thinks it’s high time that linguists start restoring this kind of knowledge to people who still speak these languages.

“Many, many people feel that knowledge, and history, and culture has been taken from them by Western academics and never returned,” he says.

It’s particularly fitting that the Monintjas are performing these stories, since the Dutch missionary originally recorded them in the same small village where Rose and her husband were born.

Reading through the Tontemboan story, and getting ready to perform it on stage, brought back strong memories of that village for Rose.

“When I’m reading this I just feel like so close,” she says. “Like I’m there–I’m here but I’m over there, I’m in my village. I just almost cry because I can…oh my gosh…my dad is pass away already three years ago. I just remember him all the time when I hear that. Because in my ear, he’s always calling me, ‘Oh, Rose, Kumano ko mayo oh.’ Tontemboan stuff, I love that.”

Rose and her husband get together regularly to speak in Tontemboan with other expats in the area, trying to keep the language and memories alive. And they were pleased to discover that their daughter had managed to pick up some. Rose’s parents spent a lot of time with them when their daughter was first born.

A few years later, her daughter noticed Rose’s leg bothering her. Out of nowhere, the daughter came up with the Tontemboan phrase for “your leg is in pain” that she remembered hearing her grandmother say. “I say ‘What!? Oh my gosh, she knows that!'” Rose remembers, smiling.

Rose said she even bragged on Facebook about performing Tontemboan in New York City. And she got props from her daughter, now 12-years-old, after her performance. Rose thanked her daughter, although she didn’t say it in Tontemboan, she said it in Indonesian, which her daughter understands better.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Easter Island’s Rapa Nui Language Attempts a Comeback

Gabriel Milatuke (left) with friend Vicente Matahiti, Easter Island. (Photo: Katie Manning)

Gabriel Milatuke (left) with friend Vicente Matahiti, Easter Island. (Photo: Katie Manning)

Ever since Chile annexed Easter Island more than a century ago, Spanish has been chipping away at the Polynesian-based language called Rapa Nui.

The South Pacific island’s towering stone Moai figures now lure in 60,000 visitors a year. Islanders smile, sing and dance in polyester costumes to cater to the mostly Spanish-speaking spenders.

But these tourists, fuelling the island’s economy, are also diluting the culture they came to see. Now, with only a couple thousand speakers left, the islanders are upping their effort to revive the Rapa Nui language.

Until the late 1990s, the Chilean government effectively outlawed the islanders from speaking in Rapa Nui. Any public sector job or office required Spanish. Anything involving the schools, police or property rights was in Spanish too.

Even the great, great granddaughter of a Rapa Nui King, Alicia Makohe, grew up speaking Spanish. She taught herself Rapa Nui at 14.

“There were many Chilean rules here,” she said. “Everybody in the school [spoke] Spanish. [Rapa Nui] was always forbidden. Also the places for the laws, the police… everything was ruled by the Chilean people.”

Chile changed its tune about ten years ago –– many say to protect the culture of one of its top moneymaking destinations. Chile stopped requiring Spanish in public institutions. It now funds new school programs, reading materials and music to reverse the decline of Rapa Nui.

Thanks to these funds, every school on the island has at least one class in Rapa Nui.

Virginia Haoa teaches language class to second graders at the Lorenzo Baeza Vega School, where all classes from science to history is taught in Rapa Nui.

She said in a class of 30 incoming students, four speak Rapa Nui fluently. Six months in, most students handle the language well.

“This program is the only space where kids learn Rapa Nui, and it’s important for any people to maintain their language because it is their identity, their worldview, their spirit. It’s their soul,” said Haoa.

But away from the classroom it’s a different story. Nine-year-old Gabriel Milatuke, for example, is happy to chatter away in Rapa Nui indoors. But once he’s on the basketball court or in the playground, he switches to Spanish.

At home, Rapa Nui families usually speak Spanish. Alicia Makohe’s brothers raise their children only in Spanish.

“They decided it’s better for them to speak Spanish because they’re going to go to school in Chile. They are going to be professionals there, and the Rapa Nui language is not going to help them. They think like that,” said Makohe.

But Makohe sings to her six-month-old son in Rapa Nui.

“I think the opposite because if you learn Rapa Nui then you have another language.”

Haoa said the employment situation on Easter Island needs to change.

“We need government policies—something that promises children speaking Rapa Nui they’ll get a job tomorrow. Jobs need to demand that they speak Rapa Nui, not just Spanish,” she said.

But the chances are slim. For one, the language was only recently written down. It had a strictly oral tradition. But now that’s changing.

The first ever Rapa Nui newspaper, Tāpura Reꞌo, hit the streets in 2010. Makohe’s husband Marcus Edensky publishes the paper.

“I tried to sell the first issue, though it didn’t work very well, and people mentioned to me in the street, you know, ‘I can’t read it because it’s hard,’” said Edensky.

Circulation jumped after the Rapa Nui adapted their reading style.

“Some commented to me that they came up with the idea of reading it out loud to themselves, then they would understand.”

A first dictionary is also in the works. One editor is linguist and Christian missionary, Robert Weber. He and his wife Nancy Weber have dedicated over 30 years to preserving Rapa Nui.

Robert Weber called Rapa Nui a complex language, full of expressions that can be tricky to define.

One example is hippi tiriti manaba, “which would literally mean a tucking or a tightening of the stomach,” Weber said. “That would to me mean that you’re feeling nostalgia or anxiety.”

In all likelihood, tourists will continue to flock to the island whether or not Rapa Nui survives. But without the language, the islanders’ music and dance routines would turn into pure nostalgia.

Despite Rapa Nui’s shaky future, Makohe clings to her optimism. Makohe does her part by writing new songs with Rapa Nui lyrics and creating educational videos for school programs. She said that she’s heard young islanders singing her songs in the streets of the island’s only town, Hanga Roa.

“Sometimes I speak to the little children, and they’re Chilean, but they speak Rapa Nui. It’s growing. It was going down, but now it’s coming up,” she said.

It’s difficult to imagine Rapa Nui coming back as a native tongue after its near-eradication. But it stands a better chance than it did a decade ago, now that young people speak it, and the Chilean government is backing the effort to save it.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Globalization of Yiddish

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Here’s a guest post from reporter Julia Simon

It started in Nairobi when I was talking to some Kenyan friends including Handerson Mwandembo.

Now Handerson doesn’t speak Yiddish, and yet I couldn’t help but notice that sprinkled into his conversation were certain Yiddish words. Words like “schmooze.” I asked him how he would use “schmooze” in a sentence. Handerson gives an example, “He passes exams because he occasionally schmoozed his lecturers.”

And then there was my friend Reham Hussein who also uses Yiddish words. But Reham doesn’t live in Kenya. She lives in Cairo, Egypt.

Reham says she often uses the word “schmuck” (which, in its original meaning, is not the most polite word but it’s commonly used these days). For example: “Okay, you had a problem with a taxi driver today, oh what a schmuck he’s being,” she says. “More or less like a person who doesn’t know what they were doing and they just keep going. Annoying in a certain way.”

I learned these same Yiddish words from my grandmother who grew up in a Jewish part of Melbourne Australia and my grandfather who learned Yiddish from his Brooklyn parents. But where did Reham pick it up?

“I was introduced to it by American media more than anything else.” Reham says On the NBC TV show Friends, she says, they use a lot of Yiddish. “And in Seinfeld they use it, even more than in Friends.”

American pop culture has long been full of Yiddish words. There’s Mel Brooks, of course. In this scene from “Spaceballs” he uses the Yiddish word “bubkes”.

And then there are Americans with no ancestral connection to Yiddish, like singer Barry White. In his famous song “Never Going to Give you up” he uses the word “schtick”.

More recently, rapper Jay Electronica used the word “schmuck” in a song.

Jan Schwartz is a professor of Yiddish at Lund University in Sweden. He says the widespread use of Yiddish in American culture tells us something. “It’s a great example of how the Jewish acculturation in America has been very successful,” he says. “Jews are comfortable in America, they can express their Jewishness publicly it’s not something you have to hide.”

Schwartz says these Yiddish words entered American English through the European Jewish immigrants who arrived in the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. But Schwarz says it’s not just American English getting the Yiddish treatment. He says there are a good amount of Yiddish words in Dutch too. Yiddish speaking Jews have lived in the Netherlands for hundreds of years.

So I called up some friends in the Hague, Meline Arakelian and Yannick Dierart, and I tried a little experiment with them. I gave them a few Yiddish words and asked if they knew the meanings. “Mazzel”, “Meshuganah”… sure enough they knew them from Dutch.

Meline says she really likes these words, “they are straight from life.” Yannick agrees. “They have a really lived in feel, like a real raw feel, straight from the street, straight from the marketplace. It feels like they’ve been said by centuries of people. A little bit poetic also, lyrical.”

Professor Schwartz thinks they’re onto something, both in the popular appeal of the words and in the lyrical aspect. But he hopes that non Yiddish speakers don’t just stop with the specific words – he hopes they go back to the source: Yiddish literature, Yiddish theater, and Yiddish standup comedy.

“I guess if that’s my mission– a mission impossible but a mission– is to kind of get people to appreciate the richness and the depth of this culture on its own terms,” Schwartz says.

Still, he says he is happy that Yiddish is getting the exposure. He says that in historical European Yiddish literature, you find these non-Jewish characters — the policeman, the postman — speaking Yiddish. The Jewish writers wrote about them with great pride.

The writers were happy that Yiddish wasn’t just a Jewish language– it reached out.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why I Like Catalan and Don’t Speak it

Sign in Catalan ("People live here") Photo: Josep Renalias/Wikimedia Commons

Sign in Catalan (“People live here”) Photo: Josep Renalias/Wikimedia Commons

[Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a blog post from the Big Show’s Barcelona-based Europe correspondent Gerry Hadden. It’s a great companion piece to his report featured in the podcast above.]

When my partner Anne and I moved to Barcelona eight years ago, we decided we would send our (future) kids to local schools. Schools that teach almost exclusively in the Catalan language. I didn’t speak a word of Catalan and neither did Anne.

We could have opted for one of two French Lycees in town. We could have chosen one of several American or British schools. That way, their education would have been in one of two languages we both speak.

But we went local because we wanted to become a part of our community. We wanted our kids to belong here. At “foreign” language schools, you’re always an expat. You don’t know the kids in your neighborhood. And your friends at school inevitably move away after a few years, when their parents’ bosses transfer them elsewhere.

That’s not the way either of us grew up, and we didn’t want that for our children. We’re also polyglots (I majored in German in college) with a “the more languages the merrier” philosophy. Our kids are now on the road to speaking, naturally, without blinking an eye, four languages.

Catalan independence supporters (Wikimedia Commons)

Catalan independence supporters (Wikimedia Commons)

Eight years on, however, their dad still doesn’t speak Catalan. For some Catalans, that’s an offense. They feel snubbed. How dare I not embrace the language – the most important and cherished aspect of Catalan identity?

But the majority of our Catalan friends couldn’t care less. Many have even congratulated us for having mastered that other official language in Catalonia: Spanish.

As foreigners living in Catalonia, we’re caught in the cross-fire of a divided society. Some Catalans wish Spain would just go away. Others can’t understand such preference for Catalan over Spanish.

This debate is sometimes tedious. Often it is outright hateful, with the vitriol spewing from both sides.

In the meantime, as I say, I haven’t learned it. I can read it, and understand most of it, but I don’t speak it. Haven’t made much effort. The reason isn’t political. It has more to do with water than with politics or philosophy or identity.

Water seeks the easiest route on its journey to wherever it’s going. Language is the same. People learn foreign languages for one of just two reasons, and the first follows the water principal. The second is what happens to water when it spills into a geyser.

Reason One: Necessity. You learn Catalan or Mandarin or Tagalog because you have no choice. You have moved to a country where no one speaks your native language and you have to eat. You can’t go to market, point at produce and nod forever. Also, you have to work. You have to make friends.

In Catalonia I can do all those things without speaking Catalan. Like water, I take the easiest route. Everyone speaks Spanish. Whether they like it or not. Only once in a very long while will a Catalan simply refuse to talk to me in Spanish. This reality drives some Catalans crazy – and it’s led to public campaigns to encourage Catalans not to switch to Spanish in conversations with folks like me. But that hasn’t really worked, because ultimately people realize it’s rude to answer someone who’s speaking to you in a language you know – by using a language they don’t.

Reason Two: Love. Love makes water go in any direction it wants. It can shoot it hundreds of feet into the air, against gravity – even turn it into a gas if it feels like it. I fell in love with someone who happens to be French. Which is why, over these eight years in Catalonia, my French has gotten pretty good, while my level of Catalan has barely budged.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized