Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Our Hubris As Relative Newcomers

It always seems a bit odd to hear some Americans berate immigrants who are struggling to learn English as a second language.

After all, English isn’t the first language of Americans.

As the grandfather of two 8th generation westerners and 18th generation Americans, I found a chart on page 5 of the current issue of High Country News fascinating.

It maps 60 American languages that long preceded English and are still in use in the contiguous West along with the number of speakers remaining for each.

Three of my great-great grandparents learned two or more of these languages enough to be interpreters including Shoshone, Northern and Southern Paiute, Navaho, Zuni and Hopi.

The latter three are still fairly widely spoken but the number speaking Shoshone has dipped near 2,500 and there are only 12 people remaining who speak Northern Paiute.

There are only 20 people remain who speak Spokane, the language of the Indian nation for whom the city along the Northern Rockies is named.

This is also where I started my now concluded career in community destination marketing and where my only child was born.

There are only 174 who speak Coeur d’Alene, the nation for whom the famous lake in the north of my native Idaho is named more than four decades ago.

The article by journalist Jeremy Miller that accompanies the chart in High Country News notes that one of the world’s 7,000 distinct languages vanishes every 14 days, meaning “between half and 90 percent” will disappear by the end of this century.

“Of the 176 known languages once spoken in the U.S., 52 are thought to be dormant or extinct.”

A January article in National Geographic provided updated archeological and genome research on The First American that reminds us that even those of us who go back 16 generations here are relatively new arrivals.

The first Americans crossed over into what is now Alaska 15,500 years ago.  Genetically, they were two-thirds East Asian and one-third Eurasian.  There, their DNA mutated into unique markers found today in Native Americans but not Asians.

Deglaciation permitted these first Americans to migrate over the next two thousand years into what is now the continental United States and clear to the tip of South America.

To put this time period in perspective, though, fossils show that the pine trees they passed were 130 million years old.  Pines are the ecologically the most important trees in the world making human inhabitation of northern climates bearable.

Spear points found southeast of Salmon just below the ridgeline of the Continental Divide in my native Idaho date the earliest humans in that state to 11,000 years ago.

My ancestors who are credited with helping to establish the first permanent settlement in that state and served as interpreters with Shoshone Native Americans were under no illusion that they were first.

They accepted as Christian scripture, along with the the Bible, The Book of Mormon which chronicles the writings of ancient prophets on this continent beginning more than 4,000 years ago.

Maybe we should all just lighten up on those learning English.

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