What happened to the Yagan language after its last native speaker died?

After the death of Cristina Calderón, known as the last speaker of this language in the world, it was thought that this original language would also disappear. But efforts are still being made to keep it alive. This is his story.

In 2009, Cristina Calderon was recognized as a living human treasure by UNESCO for being the last native speaker of the Yagan language . In her community, she was called grandmother Cristina, and the solitary story of its language has traveled the world.

He learned to speak this indigenous language from his parents and grandparents, while watching them work in the fishing and other ancestral activities of the Yagán or Yámana culture. This nomadic people, who have lived at the southern tip of the continent since more than 7000 years ago According to anthropological records, it came into contact with merchant ships crossing the Cape Horn Road In the first decades of the 19th century .

Yámana population photographed by Henry Poirier. Source: Archives of the National Library.

Like their neighboring peoples, the Kawéskar and the Selk’nam, they were confronted colonization missions and its population was seen significantly reduced by contracted illnesses of foreign visitors. The Yagans were on the verge of extinction, until some descendants settled in the Navarino Island, Magallanes region , where the majority of the population is located until today. However, and as happened in other cases of indigenous peoples, they had to adapt to Spanish and to life in society.

Throughout the island, only Cristina’s family retained the Yagan language as their mother tongue , and after the death of her two sisters, Cristina no longer had anyone to speak her native language with. He made an effort to teach other descendants of Yaganes, but No one spoke fluent enough to start a conversation with her. Not even their children and grandchildren, who had to adopt Spanish as their mother tongue.

Cristina Calderón at home, photographed in 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Vega.

Despite everything, he dedicated himself to preserving the language of his ancestors until his last days. . “Grandma Cristina” became a narrator of tales and stories about her ancestors and a teacher for anyone who wanted to learn yagán. After his death, the February 16, 2022 , many thought that yagan would also disappear. But to this day, efforts are still being made to keep the language alive.

What happened to the Yagan language after its last native speaker died?

One of the first people to record and study the Yagan language was one of Cristina Calderón’s granddaughters. Cristina Zarraga, Born in the town of Concepción, she became ikamanakipa (writer, woman who writes) and a new yagan guardian.

With the collaboration of the linguist Oliver Vogel, in 2010 he published a yagan dictionary which is now used in some local schools to teach the language to new generations. According to the Ministry of National Education, in establishments where there are At least 20% of students from an indigenous culture must have a subject in their language. in this case yagan.

Yágankuta, Yagan dictionary created by Cristina Zárraga. In the image, words and illustrations to identify day and night. Source: Digital Public Library.

This dictionary not only includes some basic words and their meaning but also reading activities and instructions for pronouncing some of the characteristic sounds of language.

Furthermore, Zárraga wrote three books about her grandmother Cristina and the legends and customs which she and other descendants of Yagan passed down to him. Many of them are adaptations and translations of Calderón’s audio recordings, which are also studied by national and international linguists.

These auditory recordings enabled a process of formalization of grammar and phonetics, so that they could be widely used within the community. According to Elisa Loncón, doctor in linguistics from the University of Santiago , emphasizes that “as long as there are recordings, languages ​​can be reactivated. Communities will always seek to speak their language.

For his part, the Yagan Usi Territorial Museum in the town of Puerto Williams, it is one of the rare places where you can visit, see and listen to some records of Yagan culture. The “southernmost museum in the world” was reopened in January 2024, and focuses on maintain a heritage space that can be visited by both the local community and tourists.

The latter has interactive modules and mediators who spread information about this city. According to the vision of Alberto Serrano, director of the establishment, maintaining the Yagan language is essential to preserve the identity of the territory . Although the town of Puerto Williams is relatively new, he says, “the Yámanas They are a living people who have lived here for over seven thousand years. . The protection of this language, spoken less and less, is very important for this region.”

Indigenous languages ​​in extinction: yagán after the death of its last native speaker

According to UNESCO there are more than 6000 different languages ​​in the world, and 40% are at high risk of extinction. These are mainly languages ​​like Yagan, which are spoken by communities that have faced colonization or displacement. It is for this reason that every February 21, this entity commemorates the International Mother Language Day.

The Yagan children on an evangelizing mission. Photo: Archives of the National Library.

According to Loncón, the objective of this commemoration is to “raise awareness of the value of linguistic diversity, because Languages ​​are an instrument for communicating cultures, worldviews, knowledge, knowledge. Humanity is impoverished by the loss of mother tongues “.

Along the same lines, linguist Sabina Canales from the Alberto Hurtado University explains that “A language is not just a system of words and meanings, but it is fraught with identity . “We have a diversity of languages ​​because we have a diversity of cultures.”

In Chile there are ten indigenous peoples who are still in force today . Close to a 84% of people are descended from indigenous cultures in the country, they belong to the culture mapuche followed by the Aymaras and the Diaguitas, according to IWGIA . Loncón comments that less than 10% of them speak their mother tongue as a first language, which is a problem for preserving culture.

Canales says the importance of languages ​​for indigenous people is seen in cases like the city’s monkey from which There is no vestige of their language and therefore “we think they did not exist” we can therefore speak of a lack of this identity in the cultural heritage of Chile.

In turn, the linguist highlights the importance of seeing Spanish used in Chile as the native language of the majority of inhabitants of the national territory. This “Chilean Spanish” was nourished by the words of indigenous cultures and with other variations such as the aspiration of certain letters or intonations depending on the region of the country, “They are part of the linguistic diversity that must be respected.”

“I am neither the only nor the last”: the Yagan language after the death of its last native speaker

In 2016, Cristina Zárraga presented her book “Cristina Calderon. “Memories of my grandmother Yagan” . In the presentation in front of the Yagán Usi Museum community, the writer said that his grandmother told him that It was not the only nor the last yagan in the world because it was mistakenly cataloged nationally and internationally.

The director of the museum Yagán Usi comments that this city was unfairly called extinct, since local communities are still in force. The descendants of the Yagán culture live mainly in Bahía Mejillones, Puerto Williams, and in addition to teaching and learning their ancestral language, They maintain traditions such as basketry based on plant fibers.

Serrano emphasizes the importance of educators who occupy teaching materials in Yagan in local educational establishments and bring the story of Cristina Calderón to life. Additionally, he comments that yagán also lives in some expressions from the Magallanes region and in words like “mamihlapinatapei” known as “one of the most beautiful and untranslatable words in the world” . It’s about the look between two people who want to start something, but who don’t dare to take the first step to start.

In the same sense, according to Loncón, it is important to keep in mind that as long as this community exists, its language will exist. The academic Usach emphasizes that “Languages ​​do not live in a vacuum, they belong to communities. And collective efforts are essential for this language to survive. »

Source: Latercera

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