Monday, February 8, 2010

When Languages Die

"Language and culture cannot be separated... Language is a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures and the perspectives that are embedded in our cultures."
~ Buffy Sainte-Marie (Piapot Cree, Academy Award-winning singer and songwriter)

Throughout history, when conquering armies have invaded new countries, they have tried to eradicate the native languages of the inhabitants. Think of the English in Ireland and Wales, the Japanese in Korea or westerners in North America. I’ve always wondered about their intentions. Are they hoping to suppress resistance by erasing a core aspect of the conquered people’s identity? Is it simply more convenient to have everyone speak one language? Are they just mean?

Unfortunately, you don’t need a conquering army to kill a language; contemporary society does the job very effectively, with little or no bloodshed at all.

Around the world languages are dying every day. I was reminded of this when I received the most recent edition of AWADmail, the weekly newsletter produced by is all about language. It is the force behind the wonderful A.Word.A.Day e-mails and the ever-amusing Internet Anagram Server, which produced on a moment’s notice 1,087 variations of the word “divinipotent” (e.g., divine tin pot, do invite pint, dip oven in tit). But I digress. 

"Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one's mother's womb."
~ Italo Calvino

In most editions of AWADmail, founder and editor Anu Garg offers up links to interesting stories he’s come across in his travels. The most recent edition took note of two examples of disappearing languages. An article in Science Daily reports on efforts to record and save two Ob-Ugrian languages, Mansi and Khanti. Once common in Northwestern Siberia, in recent decades both have been largely supplanted by Russian.

A second example comes from India’s Andaman Islands, where Boa Sr, the last person to speak the Bo language — one of India’s oldest — has died. According to a report from BBC news, "Languages in the Andamans are thought to originate from Africa. Some may be 70,000 years old." You can hear a recording of Boa Sr speaking Bo on the BBC Web site.

In this era of expanding cultural homogeneity, we should be grateful to those who create for posterity accurate records of dying languages. Still, each loss subtracts from the rich diversity of our world. One might write an elegy, but in what language?

"The vanishing of languages, like those of living species, is an event that has been repeated many times in history...The death of a language is not only a tragedy for those directly involved but also an irretrievable cultural loss for the rest of the world. Through language, each culture expresses a unique world view. Thus, any effort to preserve linguistic variety implies a deep respect for the positive values of other cultures."
~ Rodger Doyle, Scientific American, March 1998


  1. Michelle, Interesting post. The Irish were smart in ensuring Gaelic would live on, by teaching it in schools. Sad to see other languages dying out.

  2. I agree, the Irish held onto Gaelic in secret and then, when they got the chance, took it from the scrap heap and turned it into a vital language again. I can't remember if Machiavelli wrote about language suppression; probably not, since the conquerors he cared about all spoke Italian. But it does seem right up his alley.

  3. With regard to the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, can I point to the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign.

    The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.

    Your readers may be interested in Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at