A Linguistics Project

artist unknown; Source: Kwantlen.ca Linguistics course offerings

My friend, Kris McAlister presented me (among other friends) with a challenge:

What 50 English* words would you keep if you were trying to preserve your native tongue, with enough functionality to reseed it?

I present this challenge here for any who wish to attempt it. Post your answers below (and your children’s answers, if they wish to respond).

For a language and linguistics lover like myself, my mind immediately started asking questions: could English function without articles? What about conjunctions, pronouns … adverbs? I’d filled half the quota in my head in five seconds flat, and hadn’t added a single noun, verb, or adjective. The hardest part is the parameter for being able to reseed it; if English were a dying language how would we preserve its essence so that it might be revived.

Like me, Kris is a language buff, and this project is borne of a desire to consider for a moment what it might feel like to be one of the many indigenous elders in the world whose languages are losing fluent, native speakers. In the anthropological world, a language is only considered living if it has at least two living native speakers.

When Boa Sr died in 2010, she was the last living resource for linguists to record a 65,000 year old living, evolved language of the Andaman Islands. Conservation efforts to record and renew several indigenous languages of North America are experiencing mixed results and are often dependent on the willingness of younger generations to commit to preserving their native languages. In the UK, Welsh resurgence has been a success story in part due to a government mandate it be taught in schools alongside English.

As a tie-in to this project, if you choose to present it to your children, I recommend offering the following short story (used in my Reading Selections project with my kids), “We Have Always Spoken Panglish” by Suzette Haden Elgin**.

So take up the challenge, and if you come up with your fifty, post them below. Kris and I are eager to see the results!

*If your native language is another widespread modern language, what would be your fifty words? How would they differ from necessary words in English?

**Suzette is author of The Native Tongue series and originator of the constructed, now flourishing, language known as Laadan.


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