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.