Lionbridge onDemand is proud to be bringing you this blog series designed to profile some of the world's thousands of endangered languages. Yes, that's right - some languages are, in fact, in danger of going extinct. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sets forth the criteria for and categorizes languages that may be endangered or extinct.
In previous installments we have studied Gaelic, Yiddish, and Inuit Sign Language. This week, we will learn about a language that UNESCO currently characterizes as "critically endangered": Ainu.
WHAT IS AINU?
Ainu, otherwise known as Hokkaido Ainu, is a language indigenous to the Ainu people of the Japanese island of Hokkaido (as well as the Russian territories of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands).
Ainu is very close to joining the ranks of Sanskrit and Latin in becoming a dead language. Once upon a time, there were close to 20 dialects of Ainu; however, only the Hokkaido dialect today survives. As of 2016, it is estimated that there are only about 10 active speakers of Ainu left. Because of the gradual shift away from the use of Ainu over the 20th century, most of the remaining speakers are in their eighties, making them the parents and grandparents of those who may not carry on the tradition of speaking their ancestral tongue.
The Ainu people have some very distinct indicators. Men traditionally wore heavy beards, and even women tended to be hirsute. Because the Ainu spanned across both Hokkaido and some Russian territories, there has been some argument over whether they have Caucasian genetic roots.
FUN FACTS ABOUT ainu
Here are some interesting facts that you may not have known about Ainu!
- There are very few consonant clusters used in Ainu phonology. Consonant clusters are groups of sequential consonants in a word with no intervening vowels.
- The magazine Ainu Times is the only magazine published in Ainu. It has been issued four times per year since 1997.
- Preservationists in Japan have been diligently working for a few decades to save Ainu, since the number of speakers has been so steadily dwindling. In 1997, the Ainu Cultural Promotional Act was passed to help promote the language and increase its visibility in Japan.
Here are a few websites that can provide more education about the history, lexicography, and preservation of Ainu.
tHE BOTTOM LINE
Ainu is currently categorized as one of the top 10 most endangered languages in the entire world. It is of utmost importance that, if this language is to be saved or brought back from the brink of extinction, valiant preservation efforts continue, both within and outside of Japan. Otherwise, the language of an intriguing and historically rich people could disappear within the next few decades.
Despite the extremely small number of speakers left in the world, you may encounter a situation where Ainu translation is needed. If the need arises, call on your good friends at Lionbridge. Our vast network of over 25,000 linguists allows us to source interpreters for hundreds of languages, including Ainu. To learn more about our services, visit our website.
See you again for our next endangered language profile!