Boa spends her evening thinking of names for the children she never had. She would have called them after majestic, wonderful things. Words for promise and wisdom. For vitality and loyalty.

In the peak of her loneliness, she had hundreds of descendants. All of them named; all of them dreamed. After her parents died thirty years ago, she started to forget things. After her husband Nao Jer died, her eyesight started to deteriorate too, as if there was nothing worth looking at in the world. More often these days, her personal vocabulary is an untended fishing pond. There are bright flashes of things: she will see a bird and feel it in her mother tongue. Likewise, she will notice a certain cake, a ribbon. But more often these things sink back into the murk.

Languages die like people. Sometimes it’s a gentle goodnight; other times it’s sudden and violent. More common is the slow death through assimilation, where a community with one language will take on a new one – due to the demands of commerce, communication or status – and become bilingual. Over time, the old language will become outdated, no longer used, and fade away. This decline is what happened to Boa Senior and the language she spoke in India’s Andaman Islands. Bo – a language of the Great Andamanese language family – was thought to originate from Africa, and may be up to 70,000 years old. Boa was eighty-five when she, and the language of Bo, died on January 26, 2010.

However, death can be a sudden and violent thing, as in the case of linguicide – which Briarpatch Magazine defines as “the killing of languages without killing the speakers”. Restricting the modes of speech people use is an idea older than Orwell, but this doesn’t make it any less effective. Linguistic death can become a matter of government policy, as shown in reports from New Zealand’s parliamentary library. Punishment of school children for speaking Maori was only official policy until the 1930s, however a survey in the 1970s found that “40% of the adult respondents had been punished personally for speaking Maori when they were at school, in some cases as late as the 1950s and 1960s.”

The violent nature of this manner of linguistic death comes through strongly in stories surrounding the history of native speakers in colonies like Canada, where, as Briarpatch reports, “First Nations children [were] being routinely punished in residential schools for speaking their language, sometimes even with needles stuck through their tongues.” Even in less dramatic actions, the act of imposing one dominant language (in this case, English or French) over another contributes further to linguistic death, in a phrase linguistic rights scholar Tove Skutnabb-Kangas has termed “subtractive language education”.

While not always easy to spot in action, the process of linguistic death has a fairly clear scaling system, much like that used for endangered species. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger outlines five levels of language endangerment:

  • Vulnerable: Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).
  • Definitely endangered: Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in their home.
  • Severely endangered: Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.
  • Critically endangered: The youngest speakers are grandparents and older people, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.
  • Extinct: There are no speakers left.

Of the approximately seven thousand languages spoken today, six percent of these are spoken by ninety-four percent of the world’s population. This means that already the linguistic gene pool is flooded with common tongues, making languages harder to preserve, or even be understood by those on the outside.

unesco endangered languages

The language afterlife

Once a language dies, there may still be hope for revival. Unlike humans (for now), languages can be revitalised through a combination of sustained effort, culturally aware programmes and legislation. This has happened in New Zealand, with recovery programmes such as the immersive kohanga reo ‘language nest’ schooling, which fosters knowledge of Maori language and culture from an early age. Another successful case is the revival of the Hebrew language. In the case of Hebrew, however, there is a driving force for the revival in both in a religious and practical sense, as well as a sustained effort to teach it in schools and universities.

Oddly, these revival elements are lacking in Australia, which is problematic in a country that linguistics professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann says “has set a record for ‘linguicide’”. Where there had once been an estimated 250 languages spoken by indigenous Australians, only twenty of these are left. One of these surviving languages is Kuuk Thaayorre, a language spoken by the small Thaayorre community on the western edge of Cape York. Interestingly, the language has an entirely unique way of locating the speaker in space.

The future of language death

Globalisation is often blamed for the death of languages, but it’s actually ‘digital language death’ that is going to be the real problem. The internet is already so relevant in the language debate that mathematical linguist András Kornai published a paper indicating why having Wikipedia available in your language is an important criteria in assessing the vitality of a language. It’s logical enough: considering the role online communication plays in our daily lives, it seems likely that if you use one language to speak online, it will begin to supersede any other you use.

While the internet seems to be a giant scythe for most languages, I wonder whether the result will be as bad as feared. As well as providing tons of options for learning major languages, there’s a chance the internet won’t even remain a written medium. There’s already a rise in non-text methods of communicating, including advancements towards a ‘multi-sensory Internet’, or haptic technologies that can transmit the sense of touch. But if that’s too highbrow, there’s also Durex’s ‘Fundawear’. As well as a growing number of ways in which users will interact with the web, it’s entirely possible that the future will circumvent the need for universally understood written languages.

It’s worth asking, too, whether the disappearance of little known and barely spoken languages is even that great a loss. Linguistics professor Salikoko Mufwene from the University of Chicago states that, “As cultures evolve, groups often naturally shift their language use. Asking them to hold onto languages they no longer want is more for the linguists’ sake than for the communities themselves.”

However, the majority of linguists feel differently. The Catalogue of Endangered Language (ELCat) – a joint project between the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and The LINGUIST List at Eastern Michigan University – states on their website that “the disappearance of a language means the loss of valuable scientific and cultural information, comparable to the loss of a species.”

As well as this, the knowledge contained within a language can be valuable to those inhabiting the same environment. This knowledge could include historical details, such as evidence of past monsoons or tidal changes that are built into expressions of the seasons. Or it could be of a spiritual nature and express complex thoughts and feelings. Even ecological information, such as the names of plants indicating their toxicity, can be held within a language, which may help both the speakers and outsiders survive.

As stated by linguist Narayan Choudhary when mourning the death of Boa Senior: “Her loss is not just the loss of the Great Andamanese community, it is a loss of several disciplines of studies put together, including anthropology, linguistics, history, psychology, and biology.” Though I’m unable to speak a word of Bo, I can’t help feeling that, when a language dies, a way of thinking dies with it.

Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.