This 81-year-old woman is the last person who speaks her tribe’s language, so she’s making a dictionary

There are literally thousands of languages in the world — but, unfortunately, there are also countless languages, dialects, words, and phrases lost to time, as nations have been colonized and cultures have been (often forcibly) assimilated.

Luckily, there are women like 81-year-old Marie Wilcox who are fighting for linguistic and cultural preservation. Even as humanity rushes towards a monolingual English world, Wilcox, a member of the Wukchumni nation, has spent seven years compiling a dictionary to preserve her native language, Tule-Kawaeh Yokuts, of which she is the last fluent speaker. When she first started compiling words for her dictionary, she did it simply out of love.

“I didn’t say that I wanted to save it for anybody else to learn, I just wanted to get it together,” she said in a recent mini documentary from the Global Oneness Project.

As she recounts, she would get up – have her breakfast of coffee or oatmeal – and then get to writing. She would sit at her computer and type it all out.

“One word at I time — I was slow, just peck, peck, peck.”

The Wukchumni once numbered 50,000 before colonizer contact, but now only number about 200 people in the San Joaquin Valley in California — and that’s important to keep in mind, because when Wilcox passes on, she takes with her important cultural knowledge.

As a person with First Nations roots, I can say that access to comprehensive linguistic tools is vital to our language revitalization, especially as our traditional languages “die out.” Protecting our language is about protecting our heritage, and maintaining our identity as a collective community. Our languages give us a thread back to our ancestors and our historical roots – and it’s sad to say that right now so many nations, so many young First Nations youth, do not have access to that.

“Languages also convey unique cultures. … a way of interpreting human behavior and emotion that’s not conveyed the same way as in the English language,” Tom Belt, a Cherokee speaker, told BBC when discussing the importance of preserving language. “Without the language, the culture itself might teeter, or even disappear.”

Marie’s story doesn’t end with the creation of her Wukchumni dictionary, rather that is only where it begins. She and her daughter are now teaching classes to their tribe in an effort to preserve their linguistic heritage. And her grandson is quickly picking up the language, conversing with his grandmother during their day-to-day in Tule-Kawaeh Yokuts. That’s a good thing because as she says: “I’m uncertain about my language . . . It’ll just be gone one of these days.”

But, like Marie, her grandson isn’t just standing idly by and letting that happen.

You can check out the short documentary about Marie here.

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[Image via YouTube]