K is for Korean and Kickapoo

Like Basque and Japanese, Korean is a language isolate. It has about 70 million speakers in North and South Korea, and a further 5 million or so in NE China, parts of Japan, and small communities in Russia and the USA.

Until the 15th century Korean used Chinese characters for writing, and only the elite were able to read and write. In the 15th century the monarch, King Sejong, invented a new writing system which was more alphabetic, and this made writing more accessible to people.

Known as Hangul, the system consists of 24 symbols, representing vowel and consonant sounds which are written in a “box” approximately the same size as a Chinese character. Each “box” has a consonant-vowel-consonant symbol, written roughly left to right, top to bottom.

It has a subject-object-verb sentence structure and includes many basic words from old Chinese as well as an increasing number of borrowings from English.

Kickapoo, also written Kikapú, is not a well-known language – in fact it has only about 250 speakers, making it in danger of extinction – but it has such a great name I simply had to include it in my A-Z!

It belongs to the Algonquin family of languages. It originated in the Great Lakes area in North America, but is now almost extinct in the USA and most of its speakers live in Mexico. The language used to include “whistle speech” where each sound could be represented by whistle, but this aspect of the language has now died out from the lack of use.

Whistle languages were mostly used by hunters and herders, so that they could communicate without frightening the animals. The limitations of whistle sounds meant that many sentences were ambiguous, making this aspect of the language only useful in certain circumstances.

Sadly I can’t point you in the direction of a Kickapoo course, but if you fancy learning some Korean, have a look at FutureLearn.

Related posts: J is for Japanese     L is for…….

Endangered languages

Earlier this year I did a FutureLearn course about multilingualism, during which we had to consider the role of minority languages. I’ve also been reading up on some of the lesser known languages for my A-Z of languages series. As a result of all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much effort should be put into keeping vulnerable languages alive.

As anybody who has read this blog know, I love languages. They have fascinated me ever since I was 3 when I first realised that there were languages other than English out there. At school I begged my friends to teach me some words of Urdu, and I used to carry round a note book so that if I came across foreign words in books, I could write them down and learn them. I’ve studied living languages (French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Arabic amongst others) and I have O’ and A’ levels in “dead languages” (Ancient Greek and Latin). I’ve listened enraptured as a tour guide explained Egyptian hieroglyphics to me, and every time I go to Wales, I look at the Welsh language information boards, even though I don’t understand them. I say all this as context to my musings……

I was actually shocked to discover that in a country as small as the UK, there are ten languages on the UNESCO endangered list, ranging from vulnerable to already extinct. Some I was aware of (Welsh, Cornish, Manx), others I had never even heard of (Norn and various versions of Channel Island French).  My first thought was that it was sad that we have already lost some of these languages, and that it would be lovely to revive those that have become extinct, and to boost those in danger to ensure their survival. After all, these languages are as much a part of our culture and history as castles and stone circles.

But how do you find the resources to revive 10 different languages? If you can’t afford to protect them all, how do you choose? What makes one language worth saving over another?

And in a country that is criticised for its poor language skills and its people’s inability to communicate with others in their own language, can we really justify spending time and money keeping languages alive artificially? Would we not be better to dedicate our time and energy learning the languages that are useful for international trade and relations?

In an ideal world I’d love to learn all ten languages, and then teach them to others to restore a rich tapestry of language to our beautiful islands, Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world though, and I only have the time and energy to learn one more language properly, and for my own personal circumstances that has to be the non-endangered German.

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