When Boa Sr (1st image) died at the age of 85 in February of this year, the 65,000-year-old language of the natives of the Andaman Islands died with her. "With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory,'" says Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, a group that campaigns for the rights of indigenous people. With William Rozario (2nd image) last month died Cochin Creole Portuguese, a blend of Malayalam, Portuguese, and the languages spoken by the various communities in the ancient Indian Kingdom of Cochin. "Language and other kinds of intangible cultural heritage are too often neglected in comparison with, for example, built-up heritage. The other real danger, of course, is that we preserve selectively based on political or ideological convictions," says Dr. Hugo Canelas Cardoso, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Macau.
Languages can go extinct just like animals, and linguists have determined that this has happened upwards of 6,000 times! Some languages squeak by in a "critically endangered" status, like Manx or Wôpanâak, the language of the Native American Wampanoag tribe. Many endangered languages are more commonly heard in New York - the most linguistically diverse city in the world - than in their country of origin. They are being studied because they, too, are on the verge of dying out. “We’re sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years,” warns Daniel Kaufman of the City University of New York. Of the 7,000 languages currently being spoken in the world, it is thought that half are in danger of dying out. One of the reasons is the cultural influence of English on youth worldwide, explains writer Mark Abley, who is studying the 3 remaining speakers of Mati Ke on the northern coast of Australia. "The point is that it's not just picturesque details that are lost if a language dies out, it's also a whole way of understanding human experience," he says. A conference in Wales was held last month on the question of whether dying languages are worth saving.
Technically, a language is "extinct" if it has been spoken in the past, but cannot be reconstructed by modern scholars. A "dead language," like Classical Latin, can be used but has no modern speakers. Linguists recently identified an endangered language called Koro, which is still being spoken in India. "This is a language that had been undocumented, completely unrecognized, and unrecorded," reveals researcher Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Written clues to a language of Peru that is no longer spoken have just been discovered. A Senegalese professor at Boston University is working to preserve the written language of Ajami, used for centuries across Islam-influenced sub-Saharan Africa.
For some languages, desire to save them comes too late. When German explorer (and brother of a linguist) Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) heard a parrot speaking in the village of Maipures, near the Orinoco river in what is now Venezuela, he asked what it was saying. None of the villagers could translate, since the bird spoke Atures and was its last native speaker.