Musings about our world

The Dying Languages

Every year, it is estimated that an average 20-25 languages disappear. This is often due to the last remaining speaker dying without any record of the language being made.

Back in 2010, this happened in the Andaman Islands when the last Bo tribeswoman passed away.

The Andaman Islands are a little-known archipelago West of Burma in the Bay of Bengal that now belong to India. Click here for my post on tribes for more information.

Worldwide, there are roughly 6500 spoken languages, although there is much debate about this. Some have similarities to one another; others such as arabic are considered one language, but differ greatly. Arabic is a great example of a widely spoken language where syntax, dialect and accent vary greatly. It is spoken across many countries and has evolved into its present form during a time when, other than trade routes, little connected the peoples of the different areas. Arabic differs to the point that often speakers of Arabic from different countries have difficulties comprehending one another. A Sudanese arabic speaker may not be able to converse with a Levantine arabic speaker (from Lebanon) even on a rudimentary level.

In the Pacific the Polynesian settlers, who moved eastwards from South East Asia to colonise many of the Pacific Islands, set sail from larger communities. The distance they traveled before finding land would sometimes be so great that old ties with the home lands would be severed, eventually leaving an isolated community for centuries. This isolation has led to unique languages developing that have a root, but little else in common with their ancestors further West.

Looking at the history of language, it could be said that all known languages at some point stemmed from the same root in East Africa, where we are thought to originate from as a species. Isolation of wandering tribes across the globe over many thousands of years accounts for the wide breadth of linguistic styles. Looking at the UK, where distances were not great between tribes, there are a multitude of dialects, and even 3 generally recognised languages besides English are still used in more remote regions of the UK: Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish.

On Easter Island, there is evidence suggesting that perhaps a unique religion or two competing kings from divergent tribes on the island led to the creation of the famous heads, before natural resources were exhausted and the population died out. This is another indication of the isolated nature of the colonies. Most likely, when these tribes dies out on Easter, so too did a unique language. One that likely no outsider ever got the chance to hear.

Another common factor present in the languages of these isolated communities is a lack of knowledge of certain concepts.

One example is the Pacific Island Tikopia:

This tiny island’s population had no concept of ‘inland’ or mountains because of its minute size. Their language does however, have a variety of words related to the sea, such as having the sea closest to your right/left side, which many of us don’t have any words for in our own languages.

Other recent findings from linguistic studies of a tribe from the Amazon, contacted first in 1986, suggest that the Amondawa tribe lacks any real concept of time. See this BBC article for more information. The reasoning behind this is linked to lack of development within the tribe, of any form of astronomical study, which therefore failed to recognise the passage of a year, and the reason behind the cyclical nature of day/night/day etc. This comes as no surprise given the location, where there is a less distinct seasonal variation over the year.

Both previous examples may now slowly become victims of globalisation. As the English language permeates the globe, so too does it permeate foreign language. Korea is a country with a wonderfully original language, whose writing system, hangeul has been given UNESCO heritage status. Today, many English words like television, coffee shop and many others are used more commonly than their original Korean counterparts in modern Korean speech.

Languages are often being lost due to this rapid globalisation. This is not necessarily a recent issue; colonists of the 17th-19th centuries would often enforce the use of their own language throughout a nation, which is why most Africans use English, French or Portuguese as their first language.

Over time all languages evolve. Understanding an original Shakespeare manuscript from 500 years ago is a challenge without explanatory footnotes as an aide. English itself is thought to have more words than any other language. Variously over time, French, Germanic and Latin have had prolonged influence over our syntax, sentence structure and grammar.

Even modern English speakers struggle to keep up with change, as worldwide social pressures mold English into new forms. If it weren’t for mass media: television, film, radio and music, then we might not have any concept of the modern American accent in the U.K. and vice versa (watch The Wire on HBO to better understand what I mean). Only by being in constant contact with one another can we follow the two as our languages evolve imperceptibly, and therefore continue to influence each other.

In the modern era, I would not be too surprised to see a common accentual consciousness slowly develop among native English speakers around the world, to the point where in a few centuries, all English speakers have a similar lexicon.

If you are interested in language history, two interesting gateway books are Bill Bryson’s ‘The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way’ (1990, Perennial), and Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed’ (2005, Viking Press). The latter isn’t specifically focused on language but has a number of interesting passages related to the significance of communication systems in early civilisations, and their importance.


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  1. Pingback: Current Event Articles With Discussion Questions | Living History

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