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COVID Is Threatening the World’s Rarest Indigenous Languages

LIMA, Peru — Emilio Estrella was a linguistic treasure trove, possibly the only ageing speaker of Cacataibo, an endangered indigenous language in the Peruvian Amazon, still sharp enough to teach the purest, most traditional version of the tongue to an outsider.

After an odyssey last November that took him and his family out of the jungle to the nearest town in search of medical care, Estrella, aged 90 (according to his government ID although no one really knows when he was born), died from suspected COVID-19.

“He was like a father to me,” says Roberto Zariquiey, a linguist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, who spent the best part of a decade soaking up every tidbit of Cacataibo that Estrella imparted, allowing him to publish a dictionary and grammar guide.

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“It’s really difficult to find someone like him, with the breadth of knowledge that he had, who could teach me everything from traditional songs to how to make an arrow. They need to be old enough to have grown up before regular contact with outsiders.”

Sadly, that experience is being repeated in other indigenous communities around the world. By targeting tribal elders in remote first communities from Siberia to the Australian outback, the pandemic is telescoping the disappearance of many of the world’s rarest languages.

In the Russian far north, Chukchi, Nenets and other remote indigenous groups are known to be more susceptible to COVID-19 because of their preexisting marginalization and related health problems. Down under, the government has had to translate health warnings into a series of aboriginal languages, some spoken by just a handful of surviving tribal members.

But the Amazon may be the place the pandemic has hit indigenous languages the hardest. The world’s largest tropical rainforest is also home to its greatest linguistic diversity. Other places, such as Papua New Guinea, may have more languages, but none has more distinct language families than the Amazon, around 50, even though many of those families now have just a single surviving tongue. Meanwhile the new, more contagious strain of the novel coronavirus that originated in the Brazilian jungle city of Manaus is running rampant across much of South America, including Peru.

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As the last truly native speakers of each tongue perish, a window into potentially understanding unresolved mysteries of human evolution and how our brains work is lost.

For linguists, that involves studying how the ways we perceive the world around us are dictated by language, perhaps comparable to software, versus the hardwiring of our brains. In doing so, their work bleeds into numerous other disciplines, from philosophy to paleoarchaeology and neuroscience.

“It is really scary. These are communities that were already marginalized before the pandemic,” says Mandana Seyfeddinipur, who heads the Endangered Languages Documentation Project at SOAS University of London. “We’re talking about centuries of these peoples developing their knowledge and cosmology. We’re losing the diversity of ways of seeing and understanding the world,” said Seyfeddinipur.

In particular, she highlighted what she called the “viral genocide” being waged by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a COVID-19 denialist and proponent of opening up the Amazon, including indigenous lands, to ranching and extractive industries.

Before the pandemic, there were seven truly fluent speakers of Manoki, an “isolate” language (meaning the last survivor of an entire language family, in Mato Grosso) in Western Brazil. But two of those have died from Covid, and one of the survivors just turned 100, at least according to her official age, and is no longer able to work with linguists.

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“My biggest fear is that the entire language could vanish in a matter of weeks,” says Bernat Bardagil, a linguist at Belgium’s Gent University. “COVID has already swept through the community once. Even young people were very sick and thought they were going to die. Somehow, they have managed to make it this far through the pandemic. Now, with the Brazilian variant, they’re having to start all over again.”

There are thought to be around 5,000 languages spoken today, of which around half are expected to have vanished by the end of the century. Every time a language disappears, it slams a door shut on linguists’ chances of understanding what is, and what is not, truly universal about the human experience.

For example, anthropologists used to think that all human societies automatically give names to their members. Then they discovered that the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon referred to each other using descriptive phrases that require constant updating, such as “the boy who fell into the river” or “the woman making the cassava beer.”

Meanwhile the Aymara of the Bolivian and Peruvian highlands visualize the future as being behind rather than ahead of, them. That’s arguably a more logical conceptualization than that of Western societies given that we cannot actually see the future.

And the Siona of the Ecuadorian Amazon have something known as “evidentiality,” which requires a speaker to indicate through grammar whether they are talking about an event that they witnessed or one that they heard about secondhand.

“Imagine [former U.S President Donald] Trump speaking a language like that,” says Seyfeddinipur. “He could still lie, of course, but he would have to make clear whether he was talking about something that he claimed to have personally seen or not. You could then check on whether he had been in the right place at the right time.”

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As for the enigmas embedded in Cacataibo, at least future linguists will have Zariquiey’s dictionary and grammar to study.

Just 1,553 people speak Cacataibo, according to Peru’s ministry of culture, and they’re scattered across several remote villages in Peru’s central jungle, where the tribe was encouraged to settle by American missionaries in the 1950s and 1960s. That means that, unlike Estrella, most Cacataibo speakers born in the last 70 years grew up in a hybrid Cacataibo-Western culture, speaking a version of the indigenous language with a simplified syntax and packed with vocabulary from Spanish and other local indigenous languages.

“It’s just not the same studying with the younger generations,” says Zariquiey. “The future of the language now depends on these kids, the ones who are 18 and having kids of their own, and who speak Spanish, including at school.”

Of course, linguists can still always study English, Spanish or other widely spoken languages that are in no danger at all. When exploring the outer limits of the human mind, however, Western languages offer less insight than many indigenous languages, with their surprising ways, for Westerners, of categorizing reality and reasoning.

“There’s so much research going on in English that could be done in 50 years, when these other languages will have long gone” notes Seyfeddinipur. “What we are losing is irreplaceable.”

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