The death of the last speaker of an ancient language in India's Andaman Islands highlights the fact that half of the world's 7,000 languages are in danger of disappearing. Linguist K David Harrison argues that we still have much to learn from vanishing languages.
My journey as a scientist exploring the world's vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a McDonald's in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah. In all these places I've listened to last speakers - dignified elders - who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity's intellectual wealth.
Though it belongs solely to them and has inestimable value to their people, they do not hoard it. In fact they are often eager to share it. What can we learn from these languages before they go extinct? And why should we lift a finger to help rescue them?
As the last speakers converse, they spin individual strands in a vast web of knowledge, a noosphere of possibilities. They tell how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars. How humans adapted to hostile environments, from the Arctic to Amazonia.
We imagine eureka moments taking place in modern laboratories or classical civilizations. But key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth, in small, unwritten tongues. Finally, this web of knowledge contains feats of human ingenuity -epics, myths, rituals - that celebrate and interpret our existence.
Pundits argue that linguistic differences are little more than random drift, minor variations in meaning and pronunciation that emerge over time (the British say 'lorry', Americans 'truck'; Tuesday is CHEWS-day, for Brits, TOOZ-day for Americans).
These reveal nothing interestingly different about our souls or minds, some claim. But that's like saying that the Pyramid of Cheops differs from Notre Dame Cathedral only by stone-cutting techniques that evolved randomly in different times and places; revealing nothing unique in the ancient Egyptian or Medieval French imagination.
All cultures encode their genius in verbal monuments, while considerably fewer do so in stone edifices. We might as well proclaim human history banal, and human genius of no value to our survival.
The fate of languages is interlinked with that of species, as they undergo parallel extinctions. Scientific knowledge is comparable for both domains, with an estimated 80% of plant and animal species unknown to science, and 80% of languages yet to be documented.
But species and ecosystems unknown to science are well-known to local people, whose languages encode not only names for things, but also complex interrelations among them.
Packaged in ways that resist direct translation, this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues. What the Kallawaya of Bolivia know about medicinal plants, how the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations, how the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer. Entire domains of ancient knowledge, only scantily documented, are rapidly eroding.
Linguistic survivors hold the fates of languages in their minds and mouths.
Johnny Hill, Jr of the Chemehuevi tribe of Arizona is a big, imposing man, but he instantly wins people over with his gentle humility. Designated "last speaker" of Chemehuevi, Johnny achieved celebrity in the 2008 documentary film The Linguists.
Although he had never previously travelled far from his reservation or flown on an aeroplane, Johnny mesmerized film festival-goers with his life story. Raised by his grandmother who spoke only Chemehuevi, Johnny learned English at school seeking a path out of isolation.
At the other end of his lifespan, Johnny finds himself linguistically isolated once again. "I have to talk to myself," he explains resignedly. "There's nobody left to talk to, all the elders have passed on, so I talk to myself... that's just how it is."
Johnny has tried to teach his children and others in the tribe. "Trouble is," he sighs, "they say they want to learn it, but when it comes time to do the work, nobody comes around."
Speakers react differently to loss - from indifference to despair - and adopt diverse strategies. Some blame governments or globalization, others blame themselves. Around the world, a growing wave of language activists works to revitalize their threatened tongues. Positive attitudes are the single most powerful force keeping languages alive, while negative ones can doom them.
Two dozen language hotspots have now been identified globally, and new technologies are being mobilised to the cause.
A Torres Straits' Islander in Australia told me: "Our language is standing still, we need to make it relevant to today's society. We need to create new words, because right now we can't say 'computer'."
The lowly text message may lift obscure tongues to new levels of prestige, translated software may help them cross the digital divide. Hip-hop performed in threatened tongues, as I've heard among young Aka speakers in India, infuses new vitality.
Language revitalisation will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades. This push-back against globalization will profoundly influence human intellectual life, deciding the fate of ancient knowledge.
What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know - which we've forgotten or never knew - may some day save us.
We hear their voices, now muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking. Let's listen while we still can.
K David Harrison is the author of the forthcoming book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Uncover the World's Most Endangered Languages.
Here is a selection of your comments:
I think the article is a very good reflector of the fact that people from around the world are far more busy in money making business than preserving their olden golden heritage of ancient languages. This is especially true in India where most people live dreaming the veil illusions of Dollar & Pound and spend most of their precious time only after earning opportunities at the expense of the solid sacrifice of a very rich heritage of ancient indian languages like Sanskrit for example. Even the Indian government does not seem to be putting sincere efforts in practice.
Shwetal Bhatt, Basingstoke
Only today I was looking around the internet for articles on data storage and retrieval in the future (where we may no longer have the software codecs or hardware to read it) and the idea of human language as a 'codec' to knowledge began to interest me. Then I found out about the Rosetta Project that is linking the two and that the first microetched Rosetta Disk they have produced is in fact an archive of over 1500 human languages.
To all those that may say "if only a handful are speaking it, it doesn't matter" or "well just speak English then", the key thing to take from this is that when a language dies, knowledge goes with it. Just like losing information on how a computer file format is interpreted - the data is lost to you.
Anthony Cooper, Leamington Spa
Deeply moved by this article as one who tries to keep alive the breton and the alsatian so-called " dialects"Keeping languages alive help us understands who we are. Because I can breton I know what my name means, it derives from Vern marshy ground and izel low .My ancestors lived in a marshy place, a swamp a low land. Languages belong to mankind's heritage.
Vernizeau, Colmar France
How ridiculous. The purpose of language is to communicate. If nobody speaks a language it has no purpose. You might as well learn Klingon.
John, Beaumont, America
Some years ago I worked on a dramatisation of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" for the Woman's Hour serial on Radio 4, for which we needed some dialogue in the Osage language. Through the Smithsonian Institute in America I discovered that there were only five remaining speakers of this native American tongue: happily, through the Insitute, an accurate translation was obtained for the script. I wonder if there are any Osage speakers remaining today?
Jane Shepherd, Manchester
Interestingly enough I've just been in correspondence with my former Slavonic philology lecturer about the chances of the Sorbian (spoken on part of the German-Polish border) language surviving. Who can tell?
David Gatenby, Abingdon
Certainly these languages should be recorded, if possible, but let's not make this another component of White Liberal Guilt. When languages die, it's a tragedy, but it's nobody's fault. Dying languages can be revived if the population want to speak them; but it's nobody's business but theirs.
Alan Fisk, London, England
7,000 languages is 6,990 too many if you ask me. Let them go.
Nice article and nicely put, raising the important issue over native and ancient languages. The UK is no stranger to this: Gaelic (Scots), Welsh, Cornish and Norn are languages that have either just survived or now have vanished. Languages also provide a historical identity and can provide a different perspective to important events, often the losers point of view. But as pointed out, languages only survive if they change with the times. And they can be saved
Duncan Smallman, Edinburgh
What an extraordinary amount of sentimental rubbish. The assertion that "a significant portion of humanity's intellectual wealth" is held within these dying languages is demonstrably false. If such wealth truly existed, then - as history shows - these languages would be expanding and flourishing as its users traded - and lived - off that wealth. But, you know what?, the reason that Cornish, Andaman and even Latin died out as languages was that they were the expression of moribund societies incapable of communicating the intellectual, cultural and social dynamics required for sustained longevity and evolution. Trying to keep these languages 'alive' artificially is both futile and condescending.
Alex Clarke, London
As human beings do languages are also destined to die. However, their death is not because of ages. Rather a language starts dying the moment its significance in the economic aspect of its user society starts shrinking in favor of another dominant language. Hence, language revitalization will not be effective unless there is no attachment of the language with some kind of economical benefit. For instance, the last speaker of Chemehuevi's children were not interested because they didn't see its tactile benefit in their life. These days, apparently, everyone is running for English not because English is the language of the angels or the language of the demons. But because it is the language of economy. The language of the superpowers.
Deacon Mehari Zemelak Worku, Addis Ababa
If she was the last speaker of Bo, then she didnt have anyone to talk to in that language anyway!! Nobody bothered to learn other than this person so actually the language died long before this person.
Cheryl Gellard-Jones, Milton Keynes
I see what your saying and yes the local knowledge of animals and plants are important however that doesn't make the langauge important.
Humanitiy needs to be united that's how we go forwards, not in small knit tribes unable to commicate with one another. What good is there in even having 5 langauge's? Name me 2 good reasons I can't think of any? Document them by all means learn what we can from them but consign them to history where they belong one world, one people, one common langauge, one common goal perhaps then we can all just get along.
I find this an immediate issue that is at the same time so sad, but fascinating. I would like to know more. Please keep me up to date with articles and research on this topic.
Have you done any research on the Ladino language? I have read that there are maybe only 50,000 native Ladino speakers still living. I know there is an effort to preserve it through poetry and music, but as a spoken language, it too may be extinct in a few generations. How sad.
Amy Nathans, Columbus, Ohio
we have, in Europe, a language called the Basque language. It is the most ancient European language, the only non-pre-indoeuropean language spoken in Europe and is not related to any other languages.
Although it is official and widely spoken in the Basque autonomous community in the Spanish State, Basque speakers in other part of the Basque Country such as Navarre or the French Basque country undergo suffer constant discrimination from the local authorities in regions where Basque has always been widely spoken.
My concern is that a languages often dies out as a result of politics and nationalism (ie: in the Basque case, French and Spanish nationalism are to blame).
I also believe that it is the EU responsability to ensure that the Basque language survives in the whole Basque historical territory.
Rafael, London, UK
Wouldn't it be better if we had a common world language in which to communicate.
Kenny Chaffin, Denver, CO, U.S.A.
@ Kenny Chaffin, Denver, CO, U.S.A.
I agree, that would be wonderful, but hopefully a rational, logical language, easy to learn by children all over the world, ergo: not English.
Paul van Gool, Kampala
Congratulations! This is a subject that needs a lot more attention. It is worth mentioning the plight of the Finno - Ugrian language speakers of Russia.
Peoples belonging to this language family live in North Eurasia (Central, Eastern and Northern Europe and Western Siberia), being the original inhabitants of these territories.
Beyond the point of no return are the Livonians, Votes, Izhorians and Enets. Highly endangered are the Ingrian Finns, Karlians, Vepses, Samis, Mordvins, Maris, Udmurts, Komis and Premyakkomis and Obi Ugrians like Khanits, Mansis, Nenets, Nganasans and Selkups.
In evaluating their current tragic situation it should be recognised that they have not had an opportunity to organise their lives in harmony with their ethnic cultural heritage. They are living, and have always lived, in a state of continual opposition, of ceaseless active or passive struggle, as if climbing on a steep slope.
At times of need, the non-Russian people also serve as targets of hatred for the dominant population, for example 2nd World War and Stalinist purges.
I is a shame that endangered languages are not protected the same way endangered species are. When they gone, the Word won't be the same.
Monika Baker, London
When we lose a language we lose a part of our common humanity. We lose an an aspect of our ability to conceptualise. It's like what happens when an individual loses a part of their brain or an eye.
The human journey or 'progress' requires the widest possible field of vision. Today, we take it for granted that we must protect the diversity of the genetic pool. We must also do everything we can to preserve the extraordinary diversity of language.
John O'Mahony, Hove, East Sussex,UK
Languages contain treasuries of ideas and philosophies, too. I am studying classical written Tibetan, another endangered language. It is a language created solely to express Buddhist thought. It's beautiful foundations and architecture are well worth committing to memory. Like the Lilliputians, we always see farther when standing on the giant's shoulders.
Ms. Stirling Davenport, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA
I am a British citizen, now living and working in Labrador, my wife's home. I was initially sceptical of the importance of preserving languages, much as a teenager is at school during a 'language' class. However, I am now working closely with marginalised Aboriginal people here in this cold but beautiful part of isolated Canada. Getting to know more about Inuit and/or Innu culture and the horrors of 'relocation' by European influences has been quite shocking with clear and terrible consequences for people today. In fact, one could say that a complete generational separation is now evident as these ancient cultures and their complete identity as a people has been eroded over time, with the added destructive influences of alcohol, drugs and the inter-connected trauma of their lives that fuels addiction and social breakdown. It is truly a terrible situation, with people here holding such people in utter contempt without even giving their unique situation any understanding or empathic thought. Language, therefore, and the erosion of the Innuit languages or the `native American` `Indian` languages is such an integral aspect to cultural identity, with this story emphasising the global importance of such a crucial and important aspect of global humanity.
Garry Harriman, Happy Valley/Goose Bay, Labrador, N/E Canada.
I agree languages are extremly important, they teach us so much about people and culture. Language is an integral part of culture and influences peoples way of life. We have native languages in the UK which are in danger of dying out, people need to appreciate and respect these languages.
Cymro, Cardiff, Wales
The book 'Language Death' by David Crystal is worth reading, explaining just show much humankind stands to lose from our languages dying.
John from Beaumont- what a short-sighted viewpoint. Language is not just a basic tool you pick up and use "to communicate". The rules and grammars of every language tells us something unique about how the mind works. When we lose a language we forever lose a one-off world view. When we lose a vocabulary we lose access to a treasure trove of meanings that help explain the world around us. This can affect all of us. For example, the world of medicine potentially suffers when we no longer understand the healing properties of natural plants and minerals found in South American rain forests of Indonesian jungles.
Language death is actually a serious issue not to be made light of.
John, Newcastle, UK
Unless investment is made into their survival a number of languages are in danger of disappearing form the Russian Federation, which has been home to dozens of ethnic languages.
In particular, over a decade of military conflict in Chechnya, a large proportion of school aged children were left without an effective education and are now unable to write, and some to speak, in their own language.
With the inclusion of this and other North Caucasus republics into a newly formed and Russian-speaking administrative district as of January 2010, teaching of native languages is unlikely to be the top priority investment.
Official documents, signs and broadcasts are already made almost exclusively in Russian. While it is clear that having a single state language is a means of unification, it is important to preserve ethnic languages alongside it, so that the folklore, culture, centuries of philosophy and traditions are not lost.
Over the 19th and 20th centuries linguists, including the great novelist Leo Tolstoy, have travelled up an down Russia, and later the USSR, in search of tribal languages, spending efforts to record and analyse them, and in many cases to give oral languages a form of writing.
It is extremely sad that these efforts are now wasted. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union university linguistics departments dedicated to ethnic languages have all but disappeared, as have native language publications and support for authors writing in the mother tongue.
Languages have become a political issue, and this endangers their very survival.
Yet when they are lost, and their culture and knowledge go with them, the collective culture or the whole country and humanity's diversity and its sum of knowledge become poorer.
I find the lack of compassion certain people feel on this wall for dying languages extremely disturbing. Mass globalisation seems to be the major culprit towards loosing our individuality as multi-national corporations force their products (and language) onto other countries. Now economic importance seems to have become more important than our heritage and traditions. If we forget where we came from, the values we represent and how to interact as a global community what to we truly have?
owen davies, london
Playing devil's advocate here.
If language is ultimately a way to encode information, then what does it matter what language is used to encode the info, if the information is successfully encoded and passed on intact to it's intended recipients.
I do understand that Languages can be unique in that the intertwine with the culture they developed with, hence they may uniquely convey concepts germane to their cultural environment. Having said this, I happen to believe that as human beings, all cultures continually undergo life, death, and change cycles. These cycles have always existed, and will always be so. Nobody for instance speaks Latin anymore, and the Greek spoken today differs from Greek 3 thousand yrs ago.
Unless if we are clever enough to invent some kind of computerized Rosetta stone, which completely categorizes a language, I fear that the loss of languages is unstoppable, universal, and is the natural way of things.
Paul Obembe, United States
Languages codify human experience and as such losing a language means losing a part of our common experience. My son will grow up speaking English and will never understand the richness of the Tamil idioms that I will use.
Anand, Princeton, USA
Unfortunately, it's part of the natural evolution of languages that some die out as others thrive. Jersey, as a small island has an ancient French patois as its native language but a century of increasing anglicisation (along with the usual banning of native tongues that the British enjoyed using as a policy in the early 20th century)mean that the language is little more than a curiosity now, just brought out for tourists and visiting dignitaries.
It is odd being from somewhere and not even knowing the native tongue.
Kirsten Morel, Jersey
Very interesting article on a very interesting subject. I have, however, been angered by several contributors to this discussion who have given the impression that they believe the process of language death is natural and that we shouldn't interfere. It is, in fact, rarely natural: I am currently learning Scottish Gaelic. This language is in its current precarious state due to human actions: the forced exile of Gaelic communities on a massive scale, its temporary illegality and its banishment from schools until the middle of this century, only to emerge to face a supremely powerful English-language mass media. If language death is not natural, then we owe it to languages that have lost out from 'progress' to aid them through artificial means.
Eystein Thanisch, Edinburgh
I do completely agree with Alex Clarke that it sounds silly to say the humankind wealth is preserved in these dying languages.The language dies when it is not used for communication between people as a result of underdevelopment of it's native speakers.It will be appropriate to repeat the basic point from Charles Darwin's theory of evolution:strongest survives, weakest dies.
Erkin Dilbazi, Baku,Azerbaijan
In response to Paul Obembe and a few others,
While it is certainly true that, over a larger span of time, languages are always in flux--shifting, dying, being born--that doesn't mean there isn't value in attempting to preserve endangered languages. This is especially true considering that language loss, like the lose of earth ecosystems, is occurring at a faster and more dramatic rate than any other time in history.
Languages can provide passageways into histories, value systems and patterns of behavior, and many of the currently endangered languages remain unstudied. Languages provide key insights into their cultures history and development. They can provide access to ideas and value-sets we would otherwise be unfamiliar with. Understanding the internal mechanics of language learning and development of languages that work differently from ours an provide key insights to human psychology.
Languages, like species, do have a life span. But linguistic diversity is of great value to all humans for what it can reveal about ourselves. To fail to prevent the destruction of this linguistic diversity in favor of global monolingualism would be a dramatic setback for us all.
Nichali, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
"Humanitiy needs to be united that's how we go forwards, not in small knit tribes unable to commicate with one another. What good is there in even having 5 langauge's? Name me 2 good reasons I can't think of any?... Terry, Bedford"
Just like in biology, climate, philosophy, art, religion..., we should have diversity in languages. Each philosophy (art, religion, music...)shows us a particular aspect(s) of this infinite richess who is the Man. A big "mixed colours" would not make us advance.
António Saraiva, Porto, Portugal
Being someone who is concerned about social and environmental issues, I have felt torn over the issue of disappearing languages. On one hand, I feel like I ought to be concerned about the loss of heritage, but on the other hand, I have no idea why. Even after reading this article, I am unclear about how exactly ancient languages are valuable, and what would therefore justify the effort to preserve them.
The claim presented in this article seems to be that we have a great deal to learn from ancient cultures. This is undoubtedly true. The question remains, though, why keeping a language on life support is the best way to preserve the knowledge of these cultures.
As elders die knowledge fades away, even if the language is preserved. Stories, experiences, skills, traditions and unique perspectives on the world are inevitably lost when those in whose minds they have been preserved pass away. It seems to me, however, that these things would be lost even if the language was preserved.
Furthermore, if there is something of value weaved into ancient languages, something that cannot be extracted and translated into the global languages, we might be given to wonder how the global community could benefit from this value without us each coming to learn the ancient languages ourselves.
Harrison has not provided a single concrete example of some piece of ancient knowledge (beyond the skill of using a particular language) that is preserved when a language is kept alive. One could easily walk away from this article thinking that he has provided merely a convincing argument for an investment in documenting the tales and lifestyles of elders in isolated cultures in order to save what we can from their history.
If there is immense value in languages per se, this article has provided me little understanding of what that value actually is.
Andrew Jehan, Toronto Canada
We can all be romantic about languages just as we can about two aging lovers unfortunately in the end the two lovers die and the love story however beautiful ends. Language is a utility for social interaction and exchange of ideas, Language belongs to a community or association of people as we build new associations, bigger communities one currency of speech must give way to another or both currencies of speech will merge and form another unlike either of them.
Yes lets find all the languages and codify the meanings hidden in them, but as needs must at an old mans grave - let the dying languages die for new will emerge.
The eskimo has 99 words for types of snow, but he wont understand what tweeting is, cyber space or software.
MUBITA, Douala Cameroon
Some of the comments I've read are typical of speakers of dominant tongues, and are to be expected of such. I barely speak my own native Lenape tongue, as there has been few to teach me, and day to day living makes it difficult to impossible to find the time to properly learn. This much I can say, as man makes a language, so too, language makes man, their values, sense of identity, belief in what is important reflected in the words they say, and the way they are spoken. What do your words say about you?
Michael, Harned, KY, U.S.
Why couldn't the linguistics make documentaries of those dying languages, to preserve them if only in video's, DVD's or manuscripts, but it's better than lost without any documentation at all.
Of course the documentation should also document the legends and the ancient sciences (knowledges) as such as said above.
boelee, Bogor, Indonesia
This is "Krapp's Last Tape" with a vengeance. My mother tongue is English, but I lived daily in Hebrew for several years and now live daily in Spanish. Old as I am, I would certainly volunteer my services in any small way I could to help save any language of our world.
David Wallace, Toledo, Spain
The Irish had a language once but it was nearly destroyed by the British occupation of the Island for nearly a thousand years. It has been trying to recover now for many years.
Thomas Hayes, Bradford UK
Much of the value called out here is cultural, not linguistic. The only people that 7,000 languages are useful to are linguists. They are important in that they help trace the evolution and connections between languages. But that is simply a useful scholarly pursuit. Different languages separate people, whereas a common language unites. To even attempt to compare "CHEWS-day" vs. "TOOZ-day" to cathedrals vs. pyramids provides much more insight into the mind and passion of the author than the usefulness of preserving dying languages. Language is to communicate... the fewer living languages, the better.
Steve, San Francisco
I teach anthropology in the university, we focus to a large extent on the value of linguistic diversity. Many cultural concepts are only possible to communicate in the language of their origin, especially religious and ethical ideas. But one thing that is different is the attitude of the speaker towards himself and the world. It's a great tragedy, as evidenced by many comments on this thread, that the most arrogant, ethnocentric, and least intellectually qualified culture has become dominant purely due to market forces.
scott gingerich, paradise california usa
Sanskrit has actually been revived and there are over 12,000 speakers. The important issue is whether ancient languages have been codified or written down. The Vedic manuscripts have been studied for centuries, sanskrit is taught at oxford, there is, ultimately, literature that intrigues people. Some ancient languages only have oral tradition, and as lovely as it may be hearing a bard beat out an ancient tale in a foreign tongue until he does the homeric duty of writing it down all those centuries of knowledge will come to an end. It is not our duty to save languages, the desire has to come from the speakers, it is their heritage and they should want to protect what is a sacred symbol of their civilisation; we can only attempt to persuade. These people are not knowledge farms from which we can reap a ripe harvest.
Luke Woollen, St Andrews, Great Britain
We the Bangalees know the value of language, as we gave blood to establish our right of Mother tongue in 1952. There are several dyeing languages in Bangladesh. Only few hundred or thousand people talk to those languages. I know, if a language doesn't have written Novels or Stories it will die soon. This is a high time to take immediate action to save our world heritage.
Sanaullah Lablu, Dhaka, Bangladesh