Sushil Subramanian – Weblog

Essays on engineering, music, culture and their curious intersections – by Sushil Subramanian

Saying Hello in the United States

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(Update: Results presented in this article have been used in the largest database of greetings in the various languages of the world. Please see Jennifer Runner’s page for the acknowledgements. Specifically, I contributed to Piscataway and Timucua translations.)

As a part of my interests in languages, this is the outcome of a small research project. Below is a list of indigenous languages and the phrase “hello” in them, that belonged to Native American peoples that occupied areas in and around the present 50 most populous cities in the United States.

The motivation to do this study arises from a simple, but profound statistic:

Of the 175 Native languages that survived the 20th century, only 55 are spoken by 10 individuals or more. This discounts the fact that at the time of European contact, the number of languages spoken in California alone was 80 of which none remain in the present day. Navajo is the only Native language with more than 100,000 speakers [cite: Wade Davis, Light at the Edge of the World, Feb. 2007].

The choice of the 50 most populous cities will hardly cover the vast reaches of North America that the Natives once used to occupy. However, due to the technology and consumerism driven diaspora of the United States, 79% of the current population is urban and is likely to stay or visit in and around these cities [cite: U.S. Department of Transportation, Census 2000 Population Statistics, May 2011].

Furthermore, the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, made a critical and progressive decision to not limit immigration based on Western European ethnicity, but rather based primarily on the immigrant skills [cite: Wikipedia]. If immigrant skills are an incentive, it is highly probable that most post-1965 modern immigrants live in and around urban incorporated areas, with a large population. For example, as a part of my visit to the United States to pursue my PhD., I have primarily stayed in Los Angeles, the second-most populous city in the United States.

Given these factors, I am optimistic that anyone who reads this list and who currently is in, or wants to visit the United States, will most likely immediately know how to say “Hello” in a language which ran through local peoples’ bloods 500 years ago as much as English for instance, run’s in ours today. Of these individuals, some may be inspired to study these languages further, or be inspired to pursue learning their own native language, at which point, the purpose of this article can be considered fulfilled.

This list was compiled in a very simple manner, following mostly three steps:

  1. Obtain a List of U.S. cities by population: Wikipedia is an excellent source.
  2. Read the indigenous history of the place and obtain the name of the languages used in the area from Wikipedia or other sources.
  3. Use Jennifer Runner’s excellent compilation or other sources as a cross-reference and to obtain phrases.

Using only free resources available on the internet and electronic academic material available for students from the University of Southern California Libraries, details for each city in the list took on average, about 15 minutes to compile. I have tried to make the list as accurate as possible, however, I will be grateful for any mistakes pointed out.

Language loss is one of the greatest threats to the progress of human knowledge. When a language no longer has speakers, a unique wealth of information, inferences and intuitions passed through ages are lost; a flame in the human spirit is extinguished. Languages evolve with time giving rise to new ones, but in the present world, due to the pressures of political power, and the assimilation of peoples with few conscious choices, they are becoming extinct with little chance to naturally develop and flourish.

There are many ways to know about the world’s languages; a simple search on the internet can tell a lot. For example, a project that is particularly interesting and well organized is the Endangered Languages Project.

(No copyrights; please cite, copy and distribute as much as required. Please leave a comment with contact information if you need a text or spreadsheet version.)

Languages List


Written by sushilsub

April 14, 2013 at 11:05 pm

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