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Accidental Death of a Language
Thread poster: 3ADE shadab

3ADE shadab
Local time: 03:16
Hindi to English
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Feb 5, 2010

Accidental Death of a Language


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.


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Peter Linton  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:46
Member (2002)
Swedish to English
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One down, 3,000 to go Feb 5, 2010

Mohd Shadab wrote:
Of the world’s 6,500 or so languages, 3,000 are expected to die within less than one hundred years’ time.


Languages change, languages are born, language die. Let us look on the positive side.
The purpose of languages is to communicate, so the fewer languages the better. The ideal is to restore the situation before the Tower of Babel.


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Lancashireman  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:46
German to English
Valid point, Peter... Feb 5, 2010

If mankind had only ever had one common language, would we feel that there was something missing on our planet? Would we be making up new ones and allocating them to different continents?

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Paul Dixon  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 19:46
Portuguese to English
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Hear Bo spoken on YouTube Feb 5, 2010

Very interesting subject... and you can hear Bo spoken (with English subtitles) on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ17ry34P-A.

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xxxjacana54  Identity Verified
Uruguay
English to Spanish
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Why "accidental"? Feb 5, 2010

Interesting post, Mohd Shadab. Sad news.

I'm not sure I understand why this death is described as "accidental". Can anyone explain?



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xxxjacana54  Identity Verified
Uruguay
English to Spanish
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Claudia Alvis in the Spanish forum Feb 5, 2010

Just found a posting about this in the Spanish forum:

http://www.proz.com/forum/spanish/157112-muere_el_último_miembro_de_una_tribu_y_con_él_una_lengua_y_una_cultura.html

with a link to a newspaper article which says: "Según los antropólogos, la extinción de los Bo es consecuencia directa de su aislamiento, la modificación de su entorno y su incapacidad para integrarse o coexistir con otras comunidades." (Roughly: According to anthropologists, the Bo became extint as a direct consequence of their isolation, the changes in their environment and their inability to integrate into and coexist with other communities).


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:46
English to Spanish
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Not "accidental" Feb 5, 2010

But inevitable, yes.

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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 22:46
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
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Not accidental Feb 6, 2010

You cannot expect that young people go around the forest hunting wild pigs with bow and arrows while 10 km away tempting blondes surf the waves and go to restaurants.

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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:46
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Cornish- a dead Celtic language Feb 6, 2010

Dolly Pentreath of Mousehole (Cornwall, England) is often cited as the last native Cornish speaker. She died in 1777. Supposedly her last words were "Me ne vidn cewsel Sawznek!" ("I don't want to speak English!")

But there are whose who claim that Cornish has not died out. more info about the Cornish language, see http://www.cornish-language.org/english/faq.asp


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Susanna Garcia  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:46
Italian to English
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Accidental death of a language Feb 7, 2010

Nice to see linguistic imperialism alive and well on this thread, what with two comments wishing for as few languages as possible, and a third implying that the ones that die do so because their speakers are culturally backward.

Languages do not die accidentally. Their speakers do not wake up one morning and suddenly decide that they are fed up of their mother tongue. The primary cause of language death is the promotion (often compulsory) of another language by people in a position of power.

That’s why four European languages are ‘official’ in every country across the three continents of North America, South America and Australia, and why none of the endangered languages in Europe itself has official status in its respective nation-state.

Icelandic, with about 300000 speakers, is healthy, while Breton, with roughly the same number, is unlikely to see out this century. Why the different prognoses do you think? Because the Breton speakers will be too busy hunting wild pigs with their bows and arrows, no doubt.

Below is a quote by Professor David Crystal, taken from a discussion on English as a Global Language. (The entire transcript, so that it can be seen in its full context, can be found at http://wordsmith.org/chat/dc.html)

“I believe in the fundamental value of diversity, as an evolutionary principle. Half the languages of the world are likely to die out in the next 100 years - and if this happens it would be a true intellectual disaster. The world is a mosaic of visions, expressed through language. If even one language is lost, it is awful”.

It’s rather sad that some translators, of all people, don’t seem to share this view.


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 22:46
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
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It IS awful Feb 7, 2010

Susanna Garcia wrote:
“I believe in the fundamental value of diversity, as an evolutionary principle. Half the languages of the world are likely to die out in the next 100 years - and if this happens it would be a true intellectual disaster. The world is a mosaic of visions, expressed through language. If even one language is lost, it is awful”.

I agree. It is awful. But it is not for us who live in the Western society to impose other people their own culture just because we like the idea of diversity. It is only natural that people from other cultures that mean a much harder life have the desire to live the way we Westerners do. We cannot blame them for that.

As for state-less languages, that is not a problem at all as many people tend to think. State-less languages and dialects have existed ever since the creation of the first states. State is not synonym of language; language is not synonym of state. Creating states and designating a right of citizenship in the new states based on language alone is not very far from creating states and giving rights based on race.


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 22:46
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
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Please don't say that! Feb 7, 2010

Peter Linton wrote:
Languages change, languages are born, language die. Let us look on the positive side.
The purpose of languages is to communicate, so the fewer languages the better. The ideal is to restore the situation before the Tower of Babel.

Wow Peter, I sincerely hope this does not happen. We would be out of job, and I love what I do!! I even cherish the idea of seeing one (or both) of my sons become translators. I'm so naïve I know!

As for the number of languages, it is simply a fact that languages were born as a consequence of isolation of human groups. Let one human group move to a remote region and live in isolation, and it will not be long until their language starts to evolve and adapt to the new place, the same as any other aspect of life.

Disappearance of languages, as sad as it though is, is merely a consequence of a more integrated, more communicated, more interweaved, and --although I prefer not to think about it-- a more standardised world. I do not wish to see languages disappearing, but it will continue to happen as peoples lose their isolation and get "contaminated" by other cultures.


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 22:46
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
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The perils of the local convenience store Feb 7, 2010

Susanna Garcia wrote:
Nice to see linguistic imperialism alive and well on this thread, what with two comments wishing for as few languages as possible, and a third implying that the ones that die do so because their speakers are culturally backward.

I don't know whether hunting and gathering is culturally backward. I think you are wrong here, if you meant to use "backward" to mean "retarded". I would say such a culture must be lot richer than our standardised way of life because more information is needed to survive in such a way, and transmitting such information requires a very rich set of vehicles in the form of music, songs, myths, poems, sayings and art.

It is easy to understand that young members of a hunting and gathering society could find their own life less attractive than schmoozing tourists and show them the place for money, and then using their money to get as much food as they please from the local convenience store and even build a little house out of the community. Of course mixing with tourists is more damaging to their culture than throwing arrows at them, as their grandparents used to do in the past in those islands, but can we blame them for contaminating their own culture?


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Krzysztof Kajetanowicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 22:46
English to Polish
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well Feb 7, 2010

Susanna Garcia wrote:

“I believe in the fundamental value of diversity, as an evolutionary principle. Half the languages of the world are likely to die out in the next 100 years - and if this happens it would be a true intellectual disaster. The world is a mosaic of visions, expressed through language. If even one language is lost, it is awful”.

It’s rather sad that some translators, of all people, don’t seem to share this view.




That professor must be one sad chap. India has lost one of its 12,000 languages. So now it has, what, 11999?

The only sad feeling I have right now is compassion for people who spend their short life mourning dead languages.


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Paul Dixon  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 19:46
Portuguese to English
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Official Languages in South America Feb 7, 2010

According to Susanna, "(...) that’s why four European languages are ‘official’ in every country across the three continents of North America, South America and Australia (...)".

Well, as I see it the number is five, not four:

English (US, Canada, Guyana)
Portuguese (Brazil)
Spanish (most of Latin America)
French (French Guiana, Canada)
Dutch (Suriname)

Regarding the death of Bo, it is indeed a sad occurrence, but IMHO a natural consequence of globalisation. Maybe it could be revived one day - just like Cornish has been.


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