Languages: Will Hezhe survive?
Linguists estimate at around 6000 or 7000 the number of languages spoken around the world (see Ethnologue; this number varies from one source to another because it depends in large part on the methods used to count the many variants, dialects, etc). This figure is falling each year as part of a process of linguistic desertification that seems sadly inescapable.
- 50% of all languages are at immediate risk of extinction;
- on average, one language dies out every two weeks;
- if nothing is done, up to 90% of all languages may die out or become moribund during the course of this century.
Unesco has launched an endangered languages program, but it has limited resources: the main aim of the program consists of taking stock and recording the testimony of the last native speakers of those languages that are dying out. It is not a subject with great appeal to the masses ... I started an article on this very subject on the French version of Wikipedia ("langues en danger"), but I see that it has hardly changed for months (there is a litle more on the English Wikipedia).
Hezhe is one of those languages at risk. It is the language of the Hezhe, one of the small ethnic minorities in China, who live in Heilongjiang Province in north-east China.
The Hezhe community has suffered enormously from poverty and oppression, and it fell as low as 300 members in 1949. Living conditions have improved since then, and today the community consists of some 4000-5000 people who live mainly on fishing, although they have recently opened up to agriculture and tourism (thanks to the "concern of the Chinese governement"; see the People's Daily).
Their language, Hezhe (also written as Hejen or Hedjen), is a dialect of Nanai, one of the languages in the Altaic family and part of the Tungusic branch (the other branches being Turkish and Mongolian). The other Tungusic languages are not very well known, with the possible exception of Manchu, which has also virtually disappeared after several centuries in which it was the official language of the ruling dynasty.
Unesco's Red Book on endangered languages lists Hezhe as a nearly extinct language. The signs are not good: the total number of speakers has fallen below 50, there are no children who speak the language, only people over the age of 50 understand the language, etc. The widespread use of Mandarin Chinese has taken over within the community. There is no such thing as written Hezhe and, as is often the case, the traditional Hezhe culture is being lost as the language dies out, in particular the Yimakan, a collection of songs that relate the myths, legends, philosophy and traditions of this people.
Good news came from the China Daily on 6 June, however. Teachers in a school in Tongjiang have developed a system of writing Hezhe that is based on Chinese and they have produced a textbook for this language. The operation seems to be a success, with around 150 schoolchildren now studying the Hezhe language.
Will it be enough to save this language? Only time will tell, but it’s certainly a nice story with which to start the day.