UPDATE! This post was originally published on February 25, 2014. The post below reveals the amazing technology that is helping linguists rediscover languages from our past that were lost long ago. Specifically, it discusses the discovery of a Proto-Indo-European language that was spoken over 6,000 years ago. Today’s update is about saving a language before it becomes extinct. Some young people in Louisiana, United States, are fighting to preserve the language of their people, a little known Native American tribe called the Houma.
The Houma have existed in Central Louisiana for over 300 years. They were peaceful farmers, fisherman and trappers who lived entirely off the land and migrated to new areas when their lands were repeatedly encroached upon. As plantations, land developers and eventually large oil and gas companies moved into the area, the Houma were gradually displaced. Some moved into the cities while most banded together in small, remote communities.
Today, “the United Houma Nation says that 17,000 people of Houma descent live in a six-parish region in southwestern Louisiana.” Many speak a variation of French that includes a few Houma words and no one is really sure why some words survived while so many did not. Unfortunately, time has claimed all but a few dozen words. Now, two 25-year-old women of the Houma nation, Hali Dardar and Colleen Billiot, are determined to reconstruct the language of their ancestors. They are starting their journey with an old recording of Billiot’s great-grandmother singing a song in Houma. The recording was made by a Mennonite missionary and the song is called “Chan-Chuba.”
So far, they have created and distributed a pocket dictionary of all known Houma words as well as a phonetic lyric sheet for “Chan-Chuba.” The two women are meeting with elders of their tribe as well as other tribes native to the area and comparing Houma to other native languages. They have very definitive goals for which they are striving: “(to) grow their finely sourced database of vocabulary words, grammar and syntax, and create a curriculum that will allow it to operate within a contemporary context. And then get people using it.”
They are hoping that resurrecting the language will allow the Houma nation to finally attain federal recognition and help to continue the restoration of the Houma culture.
From modern day recapturing of the Houma language to the computer-generated linguistics of the Proto-Indo-European spoken 6,000 years ago, people are rediscovering the past through the words of the ancients. See how technology is helping…and listen to the amazing recreation described below.
Language is a defining characteristic of a people. Indeed, words are imbued not only with meaning but with a lineage all their own. They are embedded with clues to their past—how a people lived, what they valued, how they worshipped and what bound them as a culture. Once the last speaker of a language passes on, we lose an immeasurably important piece of our collective past. It has happened thousands of times throughout history as languages rise and fall, morph and meld. Thankfully, technology is allowing us to record and save some of these sounds before they disappear. Linguists are helping us to rediscover the languages of our past in order to preserve them for the future, as for example, with the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language spoken some 6,000 years ago. Today, incredibly, we can just sit in front of our computers to listen to the actual sounds of a dramatic reading in this ancient tongue.
First, let’s see how computers have revolutionized linguists’ research. One of the techniques linguists use to trace languages is transliterating words from a better known language or comparing descendant languages to understand the historical variations and changes. With technology, that process is accelerated. In a study released in 2013, lead author Alex Bouchard-Côté, an assistant professor in the department of statistics at the University of British Columbia, explained how he and his colleagues used a new algorithm that resulted in a breakthrough employing computer-generated, large-scale reconstructions to identify common language roots. The remarkable outcome was as follows:
…Bouchard-Côté fed words from 637 Austronesian languages (spoken in Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and more) into the new algorithm, and the system came up with a list of what the ancestor words of all those languages would have sounded like. In more than 85 percent of cases, the automated reconstruction came within one character of the ancestor word commonly accepted as true by linguists.
The “functional load hypothesis,” the basis of the research described by Bouchard-Côté, says that “sounds that are more important for distinguishing two words are less likely to change over time.” A similar test of the hypothesis conducted in 1967 was only able to use four languages, while as we see, Bouchard-Côté and his colleagues looked at 637.
According to Bouchard-Côté, this process doesn’t replace linguists, but instead offers exponentially more research opportunities given the large-scale data made available through computer analysis.
So what is Proto-Indo-European and by whom was it spoken? PIE is a prehistoric language believed to be the predecessor of the modern Indo-European languages. It was spoken by people in Central Eurasia and according to Christopher I. Beckwith in Empires of the Silk Road, most likely began in the steppe and forest between the southern Ural Mountains, the North Caucasus and the Black Sea. The language migrated out from there in waves, mixing with native languages all over Europe to create new, hybrid languages. This explains why so many languages that are seemingly unrelated have common words. One such word is father such as in “The Sanskrit is pitar; Latin/Greek, pater; Gothic, fadar.”
The people who originally spoke Proto-Indo-European were not necessarily a single, unified tribe or group. In fact, they were most likely a group of several loosely-related populations. It is very difficult to know for certain how the Proto-Indo-Europeans lived since they left no written records. However, we have pieced together several plausible descriptors based on archaeological evidence and reconstruction of the language. Some things of which we are fairly certain include:
- They lived in a climate that included snow.
- They practiced a polytheistic religion in which they worshipped djḗus patḗr and an earth god.
- They domesticated cattle and horses, living both a pastoral and semi-nomadic existence.
- They were a patrilineal society.
- They composed heroic poetry.
- They had carts with solid wheels, but not spoked wheels.
As we continue to study the PIE language, we will certainly learn more about the people and cultures of this period of time and determine more precisely how our modern languages evolved. For now, we can experience the bygone sounds of what our ancestors sounded like 6,000 years ago. Eric Powell of Archaeology magazine explains the audio provided below:
In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to produce some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses,” and also known today as Schleicher’s Fable, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE, this sonic experiment continues and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some six thousand years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no one version can be considered definitive.
The English translation of the text according to Archaeology magazine is:
The Sheep and the Horses
A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: ‘My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.’ The horses said: ‘Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.’ Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.’
Click on the image below to listen to Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd’s reading of the fable.
 Guarino, M. (2015, January 3). Young members of Louisiana’s Houma Nation try to reclaim tribe’s lost language. Retrieved January 5, 2015.
 Freeman, D. (n.d.). Ancient Language Computer Program Recreates Sound Of Dead Tongues, Scientists Say. Retrieved January 8, 2015.
 Beckwith, Christopher. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from th e Bronze Age to the Present, 2011.
 Gill, N. (n.d.). Proto-Indo-European: PIE. Retrieved January 8, 2015, from http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/language/g/092407PIE.htm
 Freeman, D.