Accidental Death of a Language

On February 4th 2010, most of the world’s press reported the death of the Bo language. With the passing of Boa Sr, the last surviving speaker of the language, Bo became extinct. Sadly, this was of no surprise to linguists and anthropologists around the world as the death knell for Bo had been sounded around forty years ago when Boa Sr’s parents passed away. From that point on, Boa Sr was no longer able to speak to anyone else in her native tongue. She was linguistically completely and utterly alone.

With her death, another piece of the human linguistic puzzle disappeared. Unfortunately, the loss of Bo is a blow to our understanding of the Great Andamanese language family, to which Bo belonged. What is interesting about this language family and the Andaman Islands themselves is the fact that some of these languages are believed to be over 60,000 years old. In fact, Bo Sr’s death breaks an alleged link to a culture over 60,000 years old.

The loss of Bo, and the subsequent extinction of all the other Great Andamanese languages, is extremely sad but nonetheless inevitable. As Jean Aitchison said in her Language Change: Progress or Decay (2001:4):

Language, then, like everything else, gradually transforms itself over the centuries. There is nothing surprising in this. In a world where humans grow old, tadpoles change into frogs, and milk turns into cheese, it would be strange if language alone remained unaltered.

There is little we can do to escape the inevitable. Languages change, languages are born, language die. Unfortunately, we live in times where the rate of language death is staggeringly fast. Of the world’s 6,500 or so languages, 3,000 are expected to die within less than one hundred years’ time. There are few cases of successful language revitalisation, Welsh and Hebrew being two remarkable examples. David Crystal in Language Death (2000) gives six factors which may help revitalise a dying language. He suggests the speakers of a dying language:

1. increase their prestige within a dominant community
2. increase their wealth
3. increase their power in the eyes of the dominant community
4. have a strong presence in the education system
5. write down the language
6. make use of electronic technology

If it is possible for a language to be reinvigorated, revitalised and perhaps brought back from near death then the job of linguists is to always support such initiatives. If we are able to preserve language life then by all means let us preserve it. However, sometimes this is not possible and then perhaps our most important task as linguists is to analyse, describe and document; set the dying language down so that we can use knowledge about it to further research into the general understanding of the human condition.

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21 thoughts on “Accidental Death of a Language

  1. That is a very sad story.
    Did Boa sr. have anything written down about her language?

    More importantly, how can we study languages that are near-extinct. Where are the records that people did keep, about their tribal/family language. Because it seems to me, another way to save languages is for third parties to learn how to use them. And I do not mean, to ‘study’ them, if you see the difference!

      1. And, what does this do toyour previous question ‘are translators crazy?’.
        Maybe not, but they certainty are stubborn.
        Everett, an Nida, kept on going, against all odds as it seems. Now I want to find out what happened to ‘Quisqeya’ the language here, before Columbus.

  2. Somehow I’m moved to something less than sadness; this may be the objectivity of the victor (I speak English mainly). But what are we to do in the face of global change, especially after so may thousands of years? The “death” of a language is like the death of a species (memepools dwindle as surely as genepools). Maybe the “Hamlet” rule of comedy applies here: tragedy is when MY species dies. But are we to drop everything in a rush to save every last type of beetle, or every dialect? The planet’s shrinking under our weight; soon it’ll be no bigger than a lifeboat; some unimaginably vast triage effort — like exodus — seems indicated. If we populate the solar system with a race that speaks only one tongue, what’s lost but history? What is history but the record of loss? More has been grieved than our present straits can hope to match. Thus, the long view … & if it’s wise to lament the passing of beauty, it’s foolish to sacrifice our present to save it.

    1. Lagnag,
      Wonderful comments and eloquently put. Thank you. I do not believe we have to sacrifice our present to help the minor languages of the world. A little compassion perhaps is needed.
      Also, is it not the role/task of linguists to analyse and describe language, and this included ALL human languages.

    2. Lagnab,
      Do you not know that history is cyclical? How do you expect to learn and go forward in this globalized world if you do not know its history? How are the world’s children and grand-children expected to recognize the atrocities that a man can incite in a single nation if they do not know the “loss” in history? It is the sentiments of the colonial assimilative monolingual myth that can produce a comment like “one tongue” and “what’s lost but history?”. One homogenized language does not solve any of the world’s problems. History can attest to that.

      For information on the importance of languages, UNESCO’s report Language Vitality and Endangerment: “The extinction of each language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical and ecological knowledge. Each language is a unique expression of the human experience of the world. Thus, the knowledge of any single language may be the key to answering fundamental questions of the future. Every time a language dies, we have less evidence for understanding patterns in the structure and function of human language, human prehistory and the maintenance of the world’s diverse ecosystems.”

      1. Thank you, Language, for your reply. Just to touch on your ideas in turn:

        1. “Do you not know that history is cyclical?”

        The whole of my comment, of 3/7, is predicated on history’s cycles; it makes no sense otherwise. Sorry if that’s unclear.

        2. “How do you expect to learn and go forward in this globalized world if you do not know its history?”

        Presuming that your question isn’t rhetorical, #1 may relieve your worries about how this (globalization or no).

        3. “How are the world’s children and grand-children expected to recognize the atrocities that a man can incite in a single nation if they do not know the ‘loss’ in history?”

        The short answer is: that’s their worry. The longer, more considered answer is: We can help them, but should limit our help to the extent that it unnecessarily inhibits our ability to improve our lives. Feel free to attack the conditions in that answer; they’re certainly assailable. Generally, I would distinguish the beauty of the multiplicity of human tongues from the task of remembering atrocity (for one think, we’d have to agree on what an atrocity is; not as easy as it sounds). The latter would be served, e.g., by Morse code. It’s an apple/orange comparison, so not directly answerable.

        4. “It is the sentiments of the colonial assimilative monolingual myth that can produce a comment like ‘one tongue’ and ‘what’s lost but history?'”

        While that’s probably right, as I mentioned in my original comment (see the first sentence), it doesn’t argue against my point.

        5. “One homogenized language does not solve any of the world’s problems. History can attest to that.”

        After these frenetic millennia of invention, I doubt we’re in any danger of reducing the hive of human culture to one homogenized anything. Recall how wrong the eugenicists were about the mongrelization of the races (as wrong as we all are about the reality of race!). So this too seems a tangent to the question of how much we should worry about the expiration of various human tongues.

        6. “For information on the importance of languages, UNESCO’s report Language Vitality and Endangerment: ‘The extinction of each language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical and ecological knowledge. Each language is a unique expression of the human experience of the world. Thus, the knowledge of any single language may be the key to answering fundamental questions of the future. Every time a language dies, we have less evidence for understanding patterns in the structure and function of human language, human prehistory and the maintenance of the world’s diverse ecosystems.'”

        Not sure how this applies, as it’s based on a clutch of questionable premises (the last sentence is particularly risible, based as it seems to be on a romantic rather than a rational analysis of culture & civilization). But I’ll grant that every worldly loss is real. My original comment tried to reach beyond that & address the existential quandary of coping with the inevitability of cultural loss. Sorry if that was a failure.

  3. For those interested in langages or peoples that disappear you can find useful information here : http://www.survivalinternational.org.
    Doing research in the past does not mean necessarily to forget everything about other times, present or future.
    Gypsies don’t speak about their dead. This silent deference is general, gypsies don’t speak about themselves. They conceal their dead’s names, destroy their possessions as if existing can only be done according to subtraction. Their civilization grows among western communities as different, as counterpoint, silently.

    When asked “ How many dead Gipsies were there during Second World War ?”, the gypsy would answer “ It is the way we remember how we cherished them that tells us what to do in the future “
    Perhaps the death of this langage can teach us something…..

  4. It gives a ray of hope to preserve dying language when I read that linguist take care about it. Progress or decay – either we document language and use it, or it begins or already is on the way to its end.

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