“Awiri nuhã,” Aritana Yawalapiti, 71, said in the language of the Yawalapiti, an Indigenous tribe in the Amazon rainforest. “Take care of the people. Take care of the land. Take care of the forest.”
With Aritana’s death, his son Tapi became the new leader of a people beset by disease and illegal loggers. And the number of people who speak their language fluently dropped from three to two, both of whom are well into their 70s.
As the coronavirus burns its path through the world, it has pushed into territories that shelter some of the world’s most endangered languages, worrying vulnerable peoples and linguists alike. By targeting the elderly, the virus is disproportionately striking down the last remaining speakers of ancient languages that were already threatened by globalization, development and the growing hegemony of a few global languages.
In Peru, the coronavirus has battered the region of Loreto, threatening dozens of rare languages. In Australia, linguists suspended an expedition to catalogue words with the last fluent speaker of Warriyangga and Thiinmato protect the 86-year-old man from the risk of infection. In India, the only country with more endangered languages than Brazil — and which passed Brazil this month with the second-most coronavirus cases in the world — researchers say conditions could turn dire.
“Somehow, people have not yet woken up to the deaths of these languages,” said Anvita Abbi, an Indian scholar who spent two decades studying the Sare language, only to see its final speaker die this year. “This is how languages die: gradually, gradually, gradually, then suddenly.”
It’s a process that Tapi, 42, has been trying to stave off for years. As the number of fluent speakers dwindled, he launched a desperate race to document and salvage a language he understood but spoke sparingly. He began interviewing his father, a font of cultural and linguistic knowledge, writing down everything and traveling out of the forest to study alongside Brazil’s most respected linguists.
Now his primary source is gone. But not, he hopes, his language.
A preexisting condition
Even before the pandemic, the world was at risk of losing more than a third of its remaining 6,800 languages. Hundreds have been lost in the last century, as development encroached on isolated villages, people migrated to urban centers, and new technologies and globalization saturated the world in a handful of dominant languages. Nearly 600 languages are critically endangered, according to UNESCO. Nearly 150 are spoken by no more than 10 people.
“By the end of this century, we will have a significant number of languages disappearing,” said Irmgarda Kasinskaite, who works on linguistic diversity with the U.N. cultural agency. “We don’t realize something’s gone until we lose it.”
When a language dies, linguists say, the world loses more than just words. What’s lost is concepts. Thought patterns. History. Nuance. Language is a tool that texturizes the world. Without it, the vivid sharpness dulls.
“If you go out into the forest, you just see a lot of trees,” said Eastern Michigan University linguist Verónica Grondona, a founding researcher at the Endangered Languages Project. “But an Indigenous person may not see ‘trees’ at all. They don’t have just one term for ‘trees,’ but many, and it depends on what type of trees they are.”
Few places better reflect the florid diversity of language — and its fragility — than the forests of Brazil. The country once contained a galaxy of languages and dialects, formed largely in isolation from one another over thousands of years. When European colonizers arrived, the linguist Aryon Rodrigues wrote, an estimated 1,175 languages were spoken in Brazil.
Today, fewer than 230 remain, the majority of them threatened — a stunning loss of language and culture that has only accelerated during the pandemic. The disease has so far killed at least 205 Indigenous “ancients,” leaders who served as living records for people without written ones. They’re cultural repositories of songs, dances, words and stories. Most try to transfer their knowledge to the next generation before their death. But if their end comes unexpectedly early, their knowledge and history disappears with them.
“When we lost our leader, we lost so much of our cultural knowledge,” said Julio Karai of the Guarani Mbya people, whose leader died with the coronavirus in July.
Sawarawia Asurini, a member of the Asurini tribe in the Amazonian state of Tocantins, had difficulty describing the magnitude of the loss. When the coronavirus struck, his tribe had only two dozen ancients left. Now six are dead.
“It’s a loss that, there are no words,” he said. “The ancients were a living history for us. Now the number of people who speak the language is very small.”
For the Yawalapiti people, the number is smaller still.
A desperate mission to save a dying language
Tapi grew up hearing stories of death and deprivation. The ancients — all fluent speakers of Yawalapiti — told him that their people’s history was marked by misfortune: disease, war, poverty, hunger. They were so poor that when the German explorer Karl von den Steinen made contact with them in 1887, they barely had food to offer him. From there, things never improved.
Attacks by another tribe in the 1930s killed many, including their leader. They fled their ancestral village and split apart. Unable to regroup and rebuild, they were absorbed into several other Indigenous tribes. The Yawalapiti survived, but their language grew weaker. When they intermarried with other groups, their children rarely spoke Yawalapiti. Even after a new village was founded, the number of fluent speakers continued to drop. By the time Tapi was a child, fewer than 20 remained, and he was told what he had to do.
“My father said, ‘You can never let it end. The language is part of our culture. If the language dies, the people will lose half of their culture.’ ”
As the last few speakers died, Tapi shared a brazen plan with his father. He would travel hundreds of miles to the University of Brasília to learn how to research their language. It would mean months away from his family, living in a university apartment in a modern city far from the forest. Very few Yawalapiti had tried anything like it. But he wanted to take apart their language — transcribe its words, codify its grammar, record its rhythms — to write a textbook to teach future generations.
Tapi didn’t know what his father’s reaction would be. Aritana was a powerful Indigenous leader, famous throughout Brazil not only for his diplomacy and intellect, but also because a prominent Brazilian telenovela had been based on him. But his father, Tapi said, recognized the importance of the mission.
“You must go to the university, make this course, but then return to the people,” Aritana said. “You cannot live there. You must come back to the people.”
Tapi spent years cataloguing the words and the quirks, reviewing lengthy meditations recorded by his father and other ancients. He’d rarely seen Aritana so proud. The language — their culture — was being memorialized by one of their own, not some outsider. But Aritana would not live to see its completion.
‘Now there are only two’
With cruel precision, the disease began to pick off the oldest. Tapi’s grandmother. His uncle. An aunt. And then Aritana, whose death in August devastated Indigenous peoples across the vast Xingu reserve in Mato Grosso state. He had been strong and vital. There was still so much left to teach.
“We lost some of our history,” said his daughter Kaiti Kna Aguiar. “We are losing our language.”
“An amputation” is how Walamatiu Yawalapiti, 35, put it.
Walamatiu, who heard the language growing up, has started teaching basic greetings to schoolchildren. Classes have been canceled because of the pandemic, but he hopes people will be speaking again soon.
Linguists are less bullish. Languages pushed to the edge of extinction rarely experience a resurgence. They instead quietly disappear, words carried away by wind.
“Now there are only two, who live separated, and not in the Yawalapiti community itself,” said Ana Suelly Arruda Câmara Cabral, a linguist at the University of Brasília who oversees Tapi’s research. “So, what will become of the Yawalapiti?
“Tapi is the salvation of the language.”
Anthropologist Adelino Mendez, who spent two decades studying the tribe, watched Tapi grow into adulthood. Most of the tribe showed little interest in learning Yawalapiti. People spoke other Indigenous languages, or Portuguese. The only younger person who sat in with the ancients and absorbed their language was Tapi.
“He was the only one who wanted to make it active and alive,” Mendez said.
Tapi knows he might fail. It might be too late. Some in the tribe have learned more of their language, but it has been difficult encouraging others to use it. Still, he plans to continue registering words, visiting with the last two remaining fluent speakers, racing against the inevitable. He’s scheduled to defend his thesis in November. Even if the language is no longer spoken, he said it will not be forgotten.
“I will not let it disappear,” he said.