Monday, 27 February 2012



Endangered languages have been in the news for past few years with the launch in February 2009 of UNESCO’s electronic edition of its Atlas of the Worlds Languages in Danger. According to UNESCO, more than half of the world's 7,000 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends.

Another study has revealed five hotspots where languages are vanishing most rapidly: eastern Siberia, northern Australia, central South America, Oklahoma, and the U.S. Pacific Northwest (see map of the hotspots below).

Copy of New Picture

In the last 500 years, an estimated half of the world's languages, from Etruscan to Tasmanian, have become extinct. But researchers say the languages of the world are now vanishing faster than ever in recorded history. More than 500 languages may be spoken by fewer than ten people. Some are being spoken only by a single person. Some tongues have disappeared instantly, with small, vulnerable communities wiped out by natural disasters. But in most cases, languages die a slow death, as people simply abandon their native tongues when they become surrounded by people speaking a more common language.

This critical situation has led members of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon, USA to travel the world to interview the last speakers of critically endangered languages as part of the National Geographic Society's Enduring Voices Project (NGSEVP). On 17 February 2012, a "Talking Dictionary" Project was announced. This latest project's online repositories will allow just about anyone to hear disappearing tongues being spoken by some of what may be their last speakers.

The fact however remains that hundreds of languages have already died, some of these long ago and with no fanfare, but sometimes the death of a language is recorded and we know exactly who last spoke it. It is these people that the author of one of the articles referenced in this post, would like to honour. This list (of the first 12 languages) is in no particular order and is not an exhaustive list, but he thinks it is representative and shows that language death is not restricted to one part of the world. The people listed came from all walks of life and, some seemed indifferent or unaware of their status, while others became campaigners and tried to pass their knowledge onto others. It is interesting that many of those in the latter category lived long lives, almost defiantly trying to battle the inevitable.

The last three languages listed represent the dying ones and are part of the NGSEVP initiatives. Like the dead languages listed, the list is not exhaustive and is not ranked in the order presented.

1. Soma Devi Dura (circa 1926)

Soma Devi Dura, last known speaker of the Dura language.

Coincidentally, mere days before Marie Smith Jones died (see second story below), British news sources made us aware of the plight of 82-year old Soma Devi Dura, the last know speaker of the Dura language of Nepal. Soma Devi Dura is partially blind, deaf and in failing health but is described as being a rich source of songs and folklore in the Dura tongue. Kedar Nagila, who is studying for a PhD in Nepalese languages has been working with Dura and trying to get her medical help. As of April 2008, Dura was still alive, but news of her since then has dried up.

Dura is one of over 120 languages spoken in Nepal, but due to a “one-nation, one-language” policy instituted by the Shah dynasty, up to 96% of these are threatened with extinction.

2. Marie Smith Jones (1918 – 2008)

Marie Smith Jones, last known speaker of the Eyak language.

When Marie Smith Jones died in 2008, she received obituaries from respected sources all round the world, perhaps indicating that language death is not just an interest of a few linguists. Smith, the last full-blooded Eyak, only really became politically active after the death of her sister in the 1990s made her the last speaker. She had declined to teach her children the language because of social stigma attached to it. However in her later years, she helped work on an Eyak dictionary, became active in environmental concerns and twice spoke at United Nations on peace and indigenous languages.

Eyak was originally spoken near the mouth of the copper river in Alaska. It has now become a symbol in the fight against language death. It is the first known native Alaskan language to become extinct.

3. Ishi (1860 – 1916)

New Picture
Ishi, last known speaker of the Yana language (and last member of the Yahi).

Of all the things we know about Ishi, his name isn’t one of them. Ishi is simply a pseudonym meaning “man” in Yana, the language of the Yahi. It was considered taboo in in Yahi society to say one's own name, so Ishi’s real name died with him. His story – that he went into hiding after his family was killed, before being found by a group of butchers - has continued to intrigue. Documentaries, films and stage plays have all been made about him and many aspects of his life are still contested. Sadly, Ishi did not have the long life that others on this list have enjoyed, dying of tuberculosis in 1916.

Thanks to linguist Edward Sapir, who worked with Ishi, Yana is relatively well documented compared to other extinct American languages.

4. Armand Lunel (1892 –1977)

Armand Lunel, the last known speaker of Shuadit (Judeo-Provençal) language.

Writer, librettist, philosopher and teacher, Lunel was born in Aix-en-Provence, France, where his family had lived for centuries, but later moved to Monaco. His writings were in French and he wrote about everyday Jewish life in Provence. In 1968, a recording was made of Lunel singing in his language but he died before another recording could be made.

The origins of Judeo Provencal are something of a mystery to linguists; documents in the language go back to the 11th century. Its use declined rapidly after the French Revolution.

5. Shanawdithit (1801-1829)

Shanawdithit, last known speaker of the Beothuk language (and last member of the Beothuk).

Considered one of the most notable people from Newfoundland, Shanawdithit had quite a sad short life. Having lost most of her family either to TB or attacks from the British, who regarded her people as thieves, she spent the last few years of life working as a servant before also dying of TB. Shanawdithit was taught some English by the philanthropist William Epps Cormack, in whose house she spent some time. She proved talented at drawing, and it is through these that we know about the lifestyle of the Beothuk. There is a sad postscript to her life, her skull was taken to the Royal College of Physicians in London, where it remained until it was given to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1938. Unfortunately, her skull was destroyed and lost during the Blitz. The rest of her remains are buried in St John’s, Newfoundland.

There is debate as to whether Beothuk is a language isolate, unlike any other, or whether it is related to Algonquian languages spoken in Quebec and Labrador.

6. Big Bill Neidjie (circa 1920 – 2002)

Big Bill Neidjie, last known speaker of the Gagudju language.

Big Bill Neidjie was always something of a local legend. He was born on the East Alligator River in Northern Territory, Australia. He had a traditional upbringing and was taught to hunt by his father and grandfather. He was known throughout for his physical strength and physique as well as for his commitment to conservation issues and the rights of indigenous Australians. His fame grew when he was featured in National Geographic Magazine in 1988 and he was awarded the Order of Australia in 1989.

Like a number of indigenous Australian languages, in Gagudju it was taboo to discuss traditional secrets, passed from generation to generation, with outsiders. When Bill became aware of his fate, he faced the dilemma of breaking taboo or letting his culture die completely. He chose to break taboo and pass the secrets on to a select number of people.

7. Tuone Udaina (died 1898)

Tuone Udaina, the last known speaker of the Dalmatian language.

Tuane Udaina was not actually a native speaker of Dalmatian. He picked it up from secretly listening to his parents’ private conversations. Despite this, and the fact that he was deaf and had not spoken the language for 20 years, he was approached by linguist Matteo Bartoli in 1897 to try to record the language. Previous documentation of the language dated from the 13th – 16th century. Sadly, Bartoli’s original work (in Italian) was lost, existing only in a German translation, until 2001 when it was re-translated into Italian. Udaina himself also met an unfortunate end, being blown up by a landmine on 10th June 1898.

Dalmatian, a Romance language with some similarities to Romanian, was spoken in the Dalmatia region of Croatia, with each town having its own different dialect of the language.

8. Fidelia Fielding (1827 – 1908)

Fidelia Fielding, last known speaker of the Mohegan Pequot Language.

Fidelia Fielding or as she called herself Dji’ts Bud dnaca (Flying Bird) is remembered as being something of a loner who kept to herself. However she should not be dismissed and she is an important and respected figure in the history of the Mohegan people. She was one of the last people to live the traditional Mohegan lifestyle and she mentored Mohegan anthropologist Gladys Tantaquidgeon. After her death, four of her diaries were found. These are now housed in the Museum of the American Indian in New York City and have been studied in efforts to revive the language.

On May 24, 1936, an estimated 1,000 people gathered at the Ancient Burial Grounds of the Mohegans, Fort Shantok State Park in Montville, to pay tribute to “Flying Bird”.

9. Alf Palmer (circa 1891 – 1981)

Alf Palmer (left), last known speaker of the Warrunga language.

Little is known about Alf Palmer or Jinbilnggay as he was known in his native language. He was born and died in Townsville, Queensland, Australia and, like many on this list, was keen to play his role in trying to preserve the language. He worked with linguists from Japan and Australia and proved inspirational in alerting linguists to language loss. He is pictured on the left above.

These very linguists returned to Townsville a few years ago and are working with Alf Palmer’s descendants in attempts to revive the language.

10. Tevfik Esenç (1904 – 1992)

Tevfik Esenç, last known speaker of the Ubykh language.

The Ubykh language is a North Caucasian language originally spoken along the shores of the Black Sea until its speakers were forced out by the Russians. They eventually settled in Turkey, and it was there that language died. Tevkik Esenc was an intelligent man who spoke several languages and he worked with linguistics to record the language as he was well aware of his status as the last speaker. Some of these recordings are available on Youtube.

Ubykh was in the Guinness Book of Records for being the language with the most number of consonants.

11. Ned Maddrell (circa 1878 – 1974)

Ned Maddrell, the last known speaker of traditional Manx.

As with Dolly Pentreath (see next story below), there is some controversy as to Ned Madrell’s status, however he deserves credit for the role he played in linguistic preservation. Ned, a fisherman from Cregneash, travelled far and wide but spent his last decades on The Isle of Man teaching younger revivalists and recording his conversations to preserve the language. He is remembered as being a cheerful man who was proud of his minor celebrity status.

There have been efforts to revive Manx since Ned Madrell’s death and there is now a primary school, Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, where children are taught solely in Manx.

12. Dolly Pentreath (died 1777)

Dolly Pentreath, last known speaker of the traditional Cornish language.

According to her gravestone, which can still be visited today, Dolly Pentreath was the last known speaker of Cornish. Dolly, who only learned English as an adult and whose last words reportedly were “Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek!” (“I don’t want to speak English!”), had a fierce reputation and was known for smoking her pipe and using profane language. Some thought her to be a witch. There is some controversy as to Dolly’s status as the last known speaker of Cornish, with some arguing that John Davey who died in 1890 should have that honour, others stating that Cornish has never really died out.

Efforts to revive Cornish have been moderately successful and Cornish gained official recognition under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 2002, and in 2008 a Standard Written Form was agreed upon.

13. Matukar Panau Community, Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea picture: speaker of dying language Matukar Panau
John Agid (pictured on the left in an interview with linguist Gregory Anderson (right) is one of only about 600 speakers of the endangered Matukar Panau language in Papua New Guinea. Photograph by Chris Rainier, National Geographic.

The Matukar Panau language is spoken in two villages in the Madang province of Papua New Guinea. Native speakers of Matukar call their language "Panau," which means "give me" and is said to refer to the words of their ancestors when they first came to the island. That their ancestors were more recent migrants than speakers of other Papua New Guinea languages in that area may be supported by the fact that Matukar is unlike the Papuan languages on the isle. It is an Oceanic language of the Austronesian family and shares cognates and similar structure with languages found on surrounding Melanesian islands, such as Samoan.

There are currently about 430 speakers of Matukar. Although this number includes both young children and experienced elders, the effects of the spreading of English and the dominance of Tok Pisin, the national pidgin, puts Matukar at risk for extinction. However, through local language revitalization efforts and projects such as the Matukar Talking Dictionary, there is hope that Matukar will become popularized among younger generations.

Matukar Panau is one of eight endangered languages featured in a "talking dictionary" project announced on 17 February 2012. Until the project team began documenting it three years ago, Matukar Panau had never been recorded or written. (Search the full Matukar Panau talking dictionary.)

14. Chamacoco Community, Paraguay

Shaman picture: speaker of dying language Chamacoco in Paraguay
Tito Perez (above), a shaman from the Chamacoco community in Puerto Diana, Paraguay, is dressed in traditional garb, including a feathered necklace and head gear. Photograph by Chris Rainier, National Geographic.

The Chamacoco language is spoken by the Ishir people of the Gran Chaco region of northern Paraguay. Chamacoco is a Zamucoan language spoken in Paraguay and maybe Brazil by the Chamacoco people. There is relatively little information about the Zamucoan language family. It is spoken by a traditionally hunter-gatherer society that has now turned to agriculture. Its speakers are of all ages, and generally do not speak Spanish or Guarani well.

Now preserved in the talking dictionaries, Chamacoco is still spoken by about 1,200 people but is highly endangered. Their language is threatened by the general shift to Spanish that is happening across most of Latin America. (Search the full Chamacoco talking dictionary.)

15. Bonda Community, India

India picture: speakers of dying language Remo in India
Speakers of India's Remo language in traditional attire. Photograph by Chris Rainier, National Geographic.

Remo, also known as Bondo or Remosam, is an Austro-Asiatic language of the Munda family spoken by an estimated 9,000 people in the Bondo Hills of Orissa province in eastern India. It is an endangered tribal language due to the pressures and influences of Oriya and other languages like Hindi and English.

Also featured among the talking dictionaries, India's Remo language is of particular interest to scholars because its linguistic roots are very old, going back to pre-Hindu India. (Search the full Remo talking dictionary.)

[Edited. Some images added.]

1 comment:

  1. Your depiction of the hydrogen ocean is incorrect. There's so much pressure pushing down from above that its surface would be a sheet of liquid. If an observer fell in it wouldn't splash but jostle a bit where the observer fell in.


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