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Dead and Dying Languages

A couple of fairly recent articles remind us of attempts to save endangered languages.  They also speak to the issue of the Internet’s role is language rescue efforts.  Ethonologue has designated about 750 languages as extinct or nearly extinct around the world today.  Many other unwritten languages have disappeared without a trace.  The reasons are complicated but usually involve political domination, population depletion, and/or migration.

The Web has made it possible not only for native speakers of endangered languages to contact each other, it makes possible the collection of data about the languages.  Our website represents a growing number of actual grammars and glossaries of languages on the brink of extinction. Many of these grammars and glossaries have been constructed by linguistically untrained native speakers hoping to preserve this critical cultural heritage.

In Millsboro, Delaware an attempt is being made to resuscitate a language long dead, the Nanticoke language.  This is an altogether different task.  Saving a description of a dying language (dictionary and grammar) is simple enough if there are enough native speakers.  Bringing one back to life is nigh on impossible. The problem, of course, is that these languages never had a writing system and we have to rely on historical reports of dilettantes such as priests, army officers with little to do, and the like.  Professional linguists have written fairly sophisticated grammars of dead languages based on historical reports.  We should not expect anyone to ever speak Nanticoke again, however.

Ladino is another matter. NPR recently ran a story called “Lost Language of Ladino Revived in Spain about attempts to resurrect this Jewish dialect of Spanish. Ladino is a variant of Spanish in the same sense Yiddish is a variant of German: it is basically Spanish spoken with a Hebrew accent with loads of Hebrew words.  However, some speakers of this dialect survived World War II and, though elderly, are still available as resources for grammars and dictionaries. a Ladino course Ladino is now offered at Tufts University.

Language of Ladino Revived in Spain about attempts to resurrect this Jewish dialect of Spanish. Ladino is a variant of Spanish in the same sense Yiddish is a variant of German: it is basically Spanish spoken with a Hebrew accent with loads of Hebrew words.  However, some speakers of this dialect survived World War II and, though elderly, are still available as resources for grammars and dictionaries. (The beginnings of an online grammar may be found Ladino course offered at Tufts University.

The bare fact is, however, that languages survive where they are needed, leaving little hope that either of these two languages or any of the others that are dying out will ever be the first language of any speaker again.  Still, these languages should not vanish unrecorded for every language is the heart and soul of some culture and we should not allow cultures to vanish unexamined and unrecorded for the simple reason that any culture has lessons about our species that are important to understanding ourselves.

One Response to “Dead and Dying Languages”

  1. Bahrom Says:

    Thanks for an interesting post. I’m sure that good will come from raising general awareness to the issue of language endangerment.

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