August 14, 2007

Chilean teen learns dead tongue

Young Chilean keeps nearly extinct languages aliveYanten is speaking Selk'nam, the language of an extinct aboriginal group that lived in the Tierra del Fuego islands off southern Chile and Argentina. They were among the last native communities in South America to be settled, in the late 19th century.

When the Spaniards arrived in Chile, 11 languages were in widespread use: Quechua, Aymara, Rapanui, Chango, Kunza, Diaguita, Mapudungun, Chono, Kawesqar, Yagan and Selk'nam. Today, only the first three remain.

Experts now consider Yanten to be the only living speaker of a language that died with the last ethnic Selk'nam in the 1970s.

His obsession began at age 8, when he wrote an elementary school project on Chile's native groups. "It frustrated me that no one really saw the magnitude of the extinction of an entire race in the south," he said. "Now you'll only find a couple of indigenous faces; it's really sad."

But learning a language when there is no one to speak it with is no small task. Yanten used dictionaries and audiocassettes of interviews and shamanic chants, recorded by Jesuit missionaries.

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