Endangered verses: Can poetry help save a language?

Writers and publishers in the American continent are using literature as a tool to prevent the disappearance of endangered languages. Through books, workshops, classes and new spaces on the Internet, they seek to document, protect and revitalize the use of their languages and cultures

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“I am almost a museum piece. My language and my culture are in danger of extinction,’’ says researcher, educator and poet Ruby Elena Jay-pang Somerson from her home on the Colombian Caribbean island of San Andres. She writes in Raizal, also known as San Andresan Creole or just Creole, a language whose roots lie in several African languages that came to the continent with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the British colonization of the Caribbean.

Raizal is also the name of the minority ethnic group native to the islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina. Over the past few decades, the tourist industry has driven the migration of thousands of Spanish-speaking Colombians, which has made the Raizales a minority group at home and impacted the use of their language on the islands. For example, the crab patty, one of the typical dishes of the island cuisine, “is being called empanada by the very same Raizales; even the matronas - women heads of household -,” Somerson complains.

The Raizal language does not have a standardized or official alphabet used for writing the language. On the Cátedra Raizal website, which grew out of her master’s thesis, the linguist proposes different strategies for the revitalization of the language. Among the most important is the creation of a phonetic alphabet that can be used to write in Raizal. Anyone interested in this language can access poems, exercises, the alphabet and her research.

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Raizal has been mistakenly described as a poorly spoken English (the language uses English words but has its own syntax and grammar), which has led to fewer people in the islands being interested in learning and using it day-to-day. Somerson’s verses are born out of her inspiration, but also as a tool to encourage use and pride in the language. One of her poems contains the following verses with the Raizal names of various foods that are part of the gastronomy of the San Andrés archipelago:

“mi da di baazli, mi da di marjan, mi da di blak pepa

mi da di soril, mi da di min tii, mi da di rom

mi da di nyam, mi da di ponkin, mi da di suiit pitieta

mi da di krab, mi da di kongks, mi da di yala tiel

mi da di kuokanat uaata, mi da di kuokanat ail, mi da di kuokanat milk

mi da di seneman, mi da di jinja, mi da di noneg”

“I am the basil, I am the marjoram, I am the black pepper,

I am the hibiscus flower, I am the mint, I am the rum

I am the yam, I am the ahuyama, I am the sweet potato

I am the crab, I am the snail, I am the horse mackerel

I am the coconut water, I am the coconut oil, I am the coconut milk

I am the cinnamon, I am the ginger, I am the nutmeg”.

Why do languages dissapear?

There are 7,150 languages in the world. Of these, 3,405, or 40%, are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people and are in danger of disappearing in the coming decades, according to the most recent edition of Ethnologue, a standardized journal that provides data on languages. In the American continent, an estimated 53 million people speak 1,604 indigenous languages. Writers and publishers across the continent are using poetry as a tool to keep endangered languages from disappearing. Through books, workshops, classes and new spaces on the Internet, they seek to document, protect and revitalize the use of their languages and cultures.

“Our languages do not die on their own, our languages are killed,” said writer, linguist and activist Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil in 2019 in a speech in the Mexican Congress. For her, her country’s government has ignored cultures and languages that are different to Spanish. According to Aguilar, indigenous communities and their languages are threatened when their territorial and political rights are violated. As an example, she talks about her home community, Ayutla Mixe, in Oaxaca, which has no access to drinking water because it is in the hands of armed groups and complaints from neighbors have not led to any kind of justice or reparations. This violence, she says, threatens the survival of the community, its culture and its language, Mixe.

An international group of biologists and linguists published a study in the journal Nature at the end of 2021 on 6,511 endangered languages around the world. After measuring 51 variables that affect their use, the team concludes that the two biggest threats are the construction of communication routes and access to formal education. The authors argue that these help the expansion of the languages used by bureaucracies and governments (in Latin America, mainly Spanish, and in the United States and Canada, English). In addition, the team explains that, since public education is rarely bilingual, minority languages are not normally transmitted to new generations in schools.

That happens in the Navajo communities of the southwestern United States. Jon Reyhner is a professor of education at Northern Arizona University. His career began in a public school in the early 1970s on a Navajo reservation. According to him, ending “the isolation of the reservations” facilitated the decline of Diné, the minority language of the area. Moreover, he says, because religious schools and boarding schools viewed the Navajo language “as the language of the devil” and schools “as places to turn students white,” formal education on the reservations was not ready to embrace bilingualism. As Reyhner recalls in a telephone conversation, 50 years ago all his students spoke Diné, while today less than 20% of Navajo students can. Data from the most recent census confirms this decline.

Languages such as Quechua, which has more than eight million speakers, are also increasingly threatened by the splintering of the populations that use it. In Peru, for example, there are twelve different varieties of this language, seven of which are in danger of disappearing. This fragmentation has led to “a false sense of pride,” says Professor Julio Noriega, in a video call from his office in the department of modern languages at Knox College. “It is said that the Quechua of Cuzco, which is Imperial Quechua, is much better than the Quechua of anywhere else,” he explains. He speaks Quechua, Spanish and English, and for more than twenty years he has traveled through various Andean countries searching for poems in Quechua.

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According to Noriega, this fragmentation occurs because of national divisions and conflicts between communities over the same resources. For example, in Bolivia, the arrival of Evo Morales to power led to “greater government attention to Aymara [the indigenous group to which the former president belongs, and its language] culture and education than to Quechua,” explains the professor. “Even some Quechua speakers began to learn Aymara, seeking legitimacy through the cultivation of that language,” he adds.

Activists and experts agree that the solution to protect endangered languages cannot be to isolate communities or reduce access to education. For example, the Nature study proposes government interventions in documentation, bilingual education and community programs to prevent 1,500 languages from disappearing in the coming decades. On the other hand, poets from these communities use their verses as a tool of cultural resistance to preserve and revitalize non-European languages in the Americas.

Poetry in endangered languages

Mexican poet Mikeas Sánchez writes in Zoque, a language from southern Mexico. In 1982, the eruption of the Chichonal volcano in Chiapas disproportionately affected the Zoque people. Hundreds died and thousands lost their homes. Sanchez and her family had to temporarily leave their home in Chapultenango and relocate to the city of Villahermosa, Tabasco.

Before the eruption, her village was quite far from what is considered “civilization”; it was a monolingual community, Sanchez says through a WhatsApp audio conversation in which birdsong can be heard. When her family returned to Chapultenango, the government had begun building several roads and schools in the village. Sánchez says that, at the beginning, those changes were welcomed by the neighbors, but today she sees that “the interest in building the roads was not for the welfare of the community, but to facilitate extractive projects in the region”. In her village school, they only taught in Spanish. She taught herself to write in Zoque. Her poem Somos Millones [We Are Millions] ends with the following lines:

“Minä' äjn’ najsomo,

nijpya’ä mij ntänh’kutyam


Ntä' isanhdziramä' te’ toya, te yajxu’ijtkuy,

te’ tujkuyis pyämi’.


jinh’mi’ natztame’”

”Come to my land,

Set up your anhillitaing machines

Tenderness anhilitors,

show us the pain and desperation,

the bullet-holes. We are millions,

and we are not afraid of you”

Sánchez has published six books of poetry and is also a radio producer, translator, community health promoter and defender of the Zoque territory.

Chris McCabe spends all day thinking about poetry. He works as a librarian at the National Poetry Library in London and writes verses in his spare time. He has published five books. He is the editor of Poems from the Edge of Extinction, a collection of poems from around the world written in endangered languages and translated into English. As a poet, McCabe knows that every language that is lost is a tragedy for poetry, as different structures, styles and visions of art are silenced. The loss of the mother tongue “has repercussions in the body,” he explains via video call from his London office. “For a poet, his language is home, without his language a poet is never going to feel at home.”

The poet María Huenuñir Antihuala was born in Cayumapu, in the Los Ríos region of southern Chile, and writes in Mapuche. As a child, her notebook was like her confidant, she says, and writing was the best way for her to “capture” her feelings and thoughts. Years later, when she was living in Santiago, a Mapuche friend invited her to a self-esteem workshop for women from indigenous peoples.

As she explains in a video call at 6.00 am, before her grandchildren wake up, these workshops are offered because in Chilean cities women are regularly discriminated against because of their gender and ethnicity. She was encouraged to participate in a writing workshop because the instructor told her that the stories were always told by male settlers and it was necessary to present different voices. At the end of the course, she read some verses in front of her classmates. She confesses that for her it was a little uncomfortable because it was something very personal, but when she finished reading, the students stood up to give her a standing ovation. “It’s something that left me kind of lost. I asked myself: why, what had I created?” she recalls.

Her poem Mapuche Zomo (Mapuche Woman) is a serenade to her comadres, where she recognizes the discrimination that exists in society towards women of native communities and at the same time celebrates their gender and culture.

“Weñankley kiñe domo,

kiñe Mapuche ñuke,

kisu ka lelikeyantu

lelikey ximiñ pun

tukunefi, kisu ñi kupam meu


welu kume tukukey.

Ñi xapelakucha kañi xariloyko

amun rellmu felekey ñi chape

ka kiñe kelu xariwe tukunekey,

pa yomillkey ñi age yewekelu

pa yomillkey ñi age yewekelu.”

“A woman sighs sadly,

she is a Mapuche woman,

she too can see,

light by day, darkness by night.

The obscurity resembles

the darkness of her clothes

and though she gloomily handles ,

her pretty silver jewelry.

Colored ribbons, in her braids,

she wears a red belt too.”

From that workshop emerged her first book entitled Malen Mapu (Country Girl). Literature has allowed Huenuñir to travel and has enabled her to open new spaces to share her verses, becoming an ambassador and advocate for Mapuche culture in her country and abroad.

Ruby Somerson, the poet from San Andrés, believes that one of the most effective safeguarding measures for minority languages is for them to be used in prestigious spaces such as education and legal systems. For her, literature is, the most prestigious space in education. Therefore, she is committed to writing poems that can be used to learn and practice Raizal, something that is already happening in schools in San Andrés.

The absence of non-European languages in prestigious spaces, such as literature or legal courts, is mostly detrimental to indigenous communities and native peoples in the continent. In Peru, after the collapse of the Sendero Luminoso, “thousands of indigenous people were prosecuted and imprisoned without the right to defense and without speaking Spanish and without knowing Peruvian laws”, says professor and editor Julio Noriega with indignation. And he wonders how one can speak of justice and equity if those who speak non-European languages on the continent remain on the peripher

Resisting extinction

“If you work with an endangered language, you almost have to be a teacher part of the time”, says Margaret O’Donnell Noodin, who writes poetry in Anishinaabemowin, an Algonquian language of the Great Lakes region of North America. She is a professor in the English and American Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her inspiration for learning the language was her great-grandmother Lizzie, who used to use Anishinaabemowin words and tell stories of the infamous boarding schools for native students. Noodin is not a citizen of any of the indigenous nations of the United States or Canada, but believes she can use her talent for languages as a contribution to the preservation of Ojibwe culture.

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She has recently written trilingual poems - in Anishinaabemowin, English and Irish - together with Irish teacher and translator Cailín Nic an tSionnaigh. Her verses invite to reflect on colonialism and the traces left by languages. Both Anishinaabemowin and Irish are minority languages in English-speaking societies.

“Aaniin waa inakamigad apii baasigaade okanan,

“What happens when the bones are dried,

Cad é a tharlaíonn nuair a thriomaítear na cnámha,

apii aniibiishan izhinaagwad mitigoonsan,

when the little leaves have become sticks,

nuair a dhéantar cipíní de na duilleoigíní,

apii zhiiwitaagani-gokoshitawagan?

when the sow’s ears are in salt?

agus nuair a shailltear cluasa na cránach?

Maamawimaajaamigadoon ina

Do they leave together

An imíonn siad mar aon a chéile


the language

an teanga

miinawaa nesewin?

and the last breath?

agus an anáil deiridh?”

In a video call from one of the classrooms on the campus where she teaches, Noodin says her most important students are her family. Her goal is to create verses and songs to bring the language to her home. She believes that a multilingual family has multiple ways of understanding and seeing the world. That is why her two daughters grew up hearing and speaking Anishinaabemowin. Additionally, she made sure they learned songs in their language and the traditional ceremonies of the Ojibwe and Potawatomi cultures, her husband’s indigenous nation.

Noodin’s husband was born in El Paso, Texas, and is a member of the Potawatomi Nation, originally from the Great Lakes region. She says that when she walks down the street or goes to a restaurant with her husband, people assume them to be caucasian because of their skin color; but if they hear them speaking Anishinaabemowin or Potawatomi they assume they are indigenous, and if her husband says something in Spanish, with a Ciudad Juárez accent, they think they are Mexican. The poet believes that society finds it difficult to accept “the difference and complexity” of identities, which leads to members of indigenous peoples being constantly stereotyped.

“Of course we have been stereotyped,” says Chiapas poet Mikeas Sanchez, “starting from the very fact that we are called indigenous peoples.” For her, it is frustrating that literature written in languages other than Spanish is separated from the rest of Mexican or Latin American literature.

The possibility of writing in her mother tongue has led Sanchez to question the label of indigenous. “The indigenous concept comes from the state..... In fact, as a translator, even if I wanted to translate the word indigenous, I have no way to translate it. I have to invent a word. I translate indigenous like the people who speak other languages,” she says.

For her, the State continues to think of indigenous peoples as “minors, who must be taught how to act and think”. They are always invited to cultural spaces to show the “exotic” face of Mexico, but when they assume political positions, they no longer fit into the national identity.

Her verses not only reflect the language and the oral and collective tradition of her community, they also denounce the exploitation of nature and the patriarchy that has silenced women “for a very, very, very, very long time”. Her art seeks to portray the experiences, pain and joys “of being a woman”. Her poem Metza (Two) reads:

“Tzambatzi’ toya’ixajpabä nkiaes’ñoyikäsi’ram

te’ jiamyajpabäis’ myätzik


Tekoroya’ram winabä' mayo’poyas’tyuj

te’ wejkä' paruwisñye’

Tekoroya’ram yom’gakis’ wyejkä


Yajk’ mytiaä te’ kumunu teserike te’ tajpi’ram

minä' yajk’ masanäjya’yaä' nkiaes’ tyoya’ram

tobyabä tzotzusen’omo nasakobajk

Yajk’ mytiaä Piogbachuwe teserike Kopajktzoka’

minä' yajk’ isansajyaä kotzäjkis xasa’ajku’y”

“I name myself and speak for all the mistreated girls

who play-out their innocence

from an alley without street lamps

For them the first rain of May

and the wolf’s roar

For them the moan of the tigress

and the honeysuckle scent of tenderness.

Let the quail and the sparrow hawk come

to anoint the souls of all these wounded girls

from the primordial memory of man

Let Piogbachuwe and Kopajktzoka come

to show the beauty of the underworld”.

In her poetry, Sanchez does not translate words that have no equivalent in other languages. For her, it is important to preserve them. For example, the concept of mother nature has no gender in Zoque; it is neither masculine nor feminine, it is dual. So translating the word Nasakobajk as mother nature would be wrong. When she translates her poetry, she prefers to leave out certain words and give an explanation. “Being able to place those words, which have a particular strength in our culture, has a distinct and important political position to cement our identity as a people,” he explains.

According to editor Chris McCabe, humans see the world in a detailed way through our language, and nature has always been a source of inspiration for artists. For him, therefore, it is natural for poets to use their prose to denounce the environmental crisis and as a tool for conservation. For example, Mapuche poet María Huenuñir makes verses and songs as prayers for different ecosystems, as an ecological spiritual service. She also works with the mestizo population. She takes them to rivers, mountains and forests and teaches them prayers and verses to protect them and heal the spaces of the territory “that have been devastated,” she explains.

In addition, she has a project with eight public schools in Santiago de Chile called Ñimikan (Uniting fabrics) where she teaches students to design looms with stories of their families and communities, with recycled materials. For her, Mapuche loom designs are another scripture she has inherited from her ancestors. Her goal is to show how Mapuche art, language and culture can be included in education in Chile

Possible Futures

Professor Julio Noriega has published two anthologies of Quechua poetry. He says that at the beginning of his career he had the illusion that his readers would be his “countrymen, the people who speak Quechua, the Andean people,” but he quickly learned that they were more interested in texts in Spanish or other languages. For the past thirty years, the vast majority of his readers have been people interested in the indigenous cultures and languages of South America.

Everything has changed with the internet, which has made it easier for his work to reach many countries. Over the past few years, he has received e-mails from Andean artists, musicians and migrants in Europe and the United States who are interested in learning Quechua. The Chilean musical group Kollahura recorded in 2018 the song Chuwi Torito based on a poem by Inocencio Mamani, which appears in Noriega’s anthology Poesía quechua del Perú published in 1996. As the professor says: ‘kachkaniraqmi’, a Quechua word which closest translation would be “in spite of everything, here I continue” and which describes endangered languages very well.

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In addition, the Internet has been an extraordinary tool for the documentation and dissemination of endangered languages. There are several websites and non-profit foundations dedicated to revitalizing endangered languages; for example, a community in California offers traditional cooking and Ohlone classes via video calls and Youtube. Google has a search engine and translator in Quechua, among other indigenous languages.

However, all the poets and editors consulted for this article agree that unless more money is invested in public education and bilingual programs, it is almost impossible for the vast majority of endangered languages to survive. “If the language stays on the internet or in books, it’s not spoken, and it’s going to disappear,” says Noodin. “You need to get out into the world and be able to sing, hear the birds and sit and talk with children and grandparents.”

It’s possible that in the not-too-distant future, no one will be able to recite verses in Raizal, or Mapuche, or Anishinaabemowin. It is not impossible that these languages and some variants of Quechua will join the hundreds of languages that have died out over the last century. However, Noodin knows that even if languages cease to be spoken, they leave traces in place names, people and words in other languages. At the end of the day, even those that disappear leave traces on the planet.

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