Like most people, Johnny Hill Jr. gets frustrated when he can't remember the correct word for something he sees or wants to express. But unlike most people, he can't get help. He is one of the last people on the planet who speak Chemehuevi, a Native American language that was once prevalent in the Southwest.
"It hurts," the 53-year-old Arizonan says. "The language is gone."
In that regard, Hill is not alone. The plight of Chemehuevi (chay-mah-WA-vy) is very similar to that of some 200 other Native American languages, according to Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon. The organization's director, Gregory Anderson, estimated that almost none of those languages remain viable. Navajo and Cherokee are among the healthiest, so to speak; up to 20,000 people speak Cherokee, and he estimates that around 75,000 use Navajo.
"Languages disappear when speakers abandon them," Anderson says. "When you have a situation where two or more languages are used in a community, and one is valued by the government or seen as the language of the educated, people are sensitive to this. It's usually a subconscious rejection by teenagers. Kids want to be cool; so if you have a way to remove something negative about yourself, it makes sense."
Hear a Chemehuevi speaker say, "He is running."
Hear a Chemehuevi speaker say, "The boy is running."
Before Europeans settled in what is now the United States, Native Americans spoke as many as 500 different languages. Virtually none of them had a written component, which further imperiled their survival during colonization.
"The idea was to get rid of the Indians and what made them Indian," Anderson says. "They were put into boarding schools right up until the 1960s. They'd beat up kids for speaking their languages, or wash their mouths out with soap.
Hill recalls being teased for speaking another language—until his persecutors got tired of him beating them up.
"I was raised by my grandmother, who never spoke English a day in her life," he says. "I eventually learned English. … I think mostly in English, but I mix words up."
To keep Chemehuevi alive, Hill often talks to himself. "All the elders are dying off," he says. "There may be about 30 true Chemehuevi left."
More than words are lost when languages die. They carry valuable information about a population's history and living environment.
"These people have been living and interacting within their ecosystems for millennia," Anderson says. "There is any number of things that people have been talking about for years that we're unaware of that could help society. For example, the Maya had an extremely sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, and most of it is lost."
So how do you save a language? Hill tried the obvious route—teaching his stepson—without success. "I taught him a word a day, and he used to write them down," he says. "I don't know what happened to that."
Anderson and the others at the institute perform linguistic triage with technology and psychology. First they determine why a community or group has abandoned a language in the first place. Then they work to elevate its status.
"Talking dictionaries help, and we're trying to build talking encyclopedias," Anderson says. "People love to play with them, especially young people. We show them that the stuff their grandparents know isn't boring."
The institute goes where their assistance is wanted, from Siberia to Africa to India. In doing so, they've identified 18 "hotspots"—homes to languages on their last gasps. Two of the top five are in the United States: the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. These are places with high concentrations of Native American populations.
"It's a rescue mission," Anderson says. "But we're trying. We're trying."
Robin T. Reid, a freelance writer and editor in Baltimore, Maryland, last wrote for Smithsonian.com about fossils in Kenya.