What Happens When A Language's Last Monolingual Speaker Dies?

Jan 8, 2014
Originally published on January 8, 2014 12:47 pm

Emily Johnson Dickerson died at her home in Ada, Okla., last week. She was the last person alive who spoke only the Chickasaw language.

"This is a sad day for all Chickasaw people because we have lost a cherished member of our Chickasaw family and an unequaled source of knowledge about our language and culture," Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said in a news release. The Chickasaw Nation has about 55,000 members and is based in the southern part of central Oklahoma.

Dickerson, 93, was one of about 65 people fluent in the Chickasaw language, which has seen its number of speakers shrink from thousands since the 1960s.

"Chickasaw was the dominant language in Chickasaw Nation, both prior to and following removal [when Chickasaw people were forced to relocate to Indian Territory*]," says Joshua Hinson, director of the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Program. "It was the late 1880s, 1890s and into the 1900s when we started to see a shift toward English."

The people who still speak Chickasaw — now in their 60s and 70s — started learning English when they were forced to go to boarding schools for Indians or local public schools. Dickerson didn't learn another language because, Hinson says, she didn't need English. She was from a traditional community, Kali-Homma', and didn't work in a wage economy.

"She lived like our ancestors did a long time ago," Hinson says. "What's important in Chickasaw is quite different than [what's important] in English. ... For her, she saw a world from a Chickasaw worldview, without the interference of English at all."

Though the Chickasaw language is very different from English, it shares features with other Native languages.

Chickasaw is a spoken language, replete with long, intricate words that have the same amount of information as a sentence or sometimes two sentences in English. Take the word Ilooibaa-áyya'shahminattook.

"This means something like 'We (including you, the person I am speaking to) were there together, habitually, a long time (more than a year) ago,' " Hinson wrote in an email. (The word was too long to spell out over the phone.)

Experts say the rest of the 65 Chickasaw speakers, all of whom are bilingual, might be a big enough pool to preserve the language. Greg Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute, thinks the situation, though bleak, is not as bad as it could be.

"You can never really predict what the future will bring for a language that's in demise, even a language as far eroded as Chickasaw is," Anderson says. "As small as the number is, it could be a lot worse. ... You could conceivably, with very difficult — to be honest — time-consuming effort ... try to maintain and preserve and find main domains of use [for the language]."

Hinson's program tries to counter further erosion of Chickasaw by offering language immersion programs — for both kids and adults. Tools, including an iPhone app and a stream of videos, make the language accessible to anyone, as Hinson puts it, "on the face of the planet."

The death of Emily Johnson Dickerson last week is a "kind of reminder in how important the work we do in revitalization is, how important it is for us to be serious and committed and hard-working," Hinson says. "We don't want to have a situation in 30 years where we say our last Native speaker has passed and we don't have a speaker who can have a conversation in Chickasaw."


*This forced removal followed the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and is commonly referred to as the "Trail of Tears."

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