How languages die: 3 dead languages and what they can teach us

December 6, 2018

Languages survive fires, floods, droughts, famines and wars.

But then, sometimes, they die.

Which means that before they do, they must be living. We might not see it that way, but right before our eyes, every day and every year they grow, evolve, mutate.

In much the same way a snake molts its skin, languages have an organic quality that allows them to change with the times and the people who speak, write and hear them every second of every day.

Until one day, they don’t. Like Akkadian, the language of the ancient Assyrian Empire.

Akkadian, and the secret of survival

Remember Noah? That guy with the floating zoo? According to the legend, his grandson Aram started a small tribe of nomads. These nomads were ambitious and started taking over stuff. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, they ruled over much of present-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The Arameans spoke Aramaic.

If you are one of the world’s two remaining Mel Gibson fans, you might remember Aramaic as the language spoken in The Passion of Christ. Or, if you’re a bit of a Bible nerd, you might know Aramaic as one of the languages that the good book was written in.

The Assyrians rolled up in their chariots, took Babylon from the Arameans and expelled them from their lands. They thought they had won. They thought they had secured a future for their empire and for their language.

But nobody knows Akkadian anymore. In fact: I’m willing to bet twenty bucks you’d never even heard of it. Am I right? Whereas about half a million people still speak Aramaic. Today. 3000 years later!

So, what happened?

The Arameans were used to travelling and when they got kicked out, they did what they knew best. Packed up their things and started moving. Soon enough their diaspora was spreading little communities all across the Mediterranean.
When the Assyrians were conquered, their Akkadian-speaking elite was almost entirely destroyed.

The language disappeared.

So what do we learn here?

  • A language that travels well lasts longer. Having smaller diasporas everywhere is better than having a huge community all in one place. If you want to know which language might still be here three thousand years from now, don’t look at the total number of people who speak it, look at the number of communities who do, instead.
  • A language that doesn’t travel at all is in trouble.

This last point brings us to Mandan.

Mandan, and the man who spoke it

When I say, ”Dead languages,” you probably think Latin and Greek. Maybe a thousand or two years ago. But in 2016, three languages went extinct: Gugu Thaypan, an indigenous Australian language, as well as Wichita and Mandan, two Native American languages.

Edwin Benson died on 9 December 2016. He was the last Mandan speaker. Just three years ago, a visibly distraught Benson explained in a speech: “I have no one to talk the Mandan language to.” He then told the audience how strange that must be to imagine and to believe — being the last person in the world to speak a language.

It’s not as rare as you might imagine, though. Since the year 2000, at least 53 different people have died who were the last speakers of a language.

The trend is only going to accelerate. After all, as this TEDX speaker says, 50% of the world speaks 50 languages and the other 50% speaks the remaining 6,950.** Many of these languages are spoken by small communities in remote regions. People have been moving from small communities to big cities in huge numbers since the dawn of the industrial revolution, if not earlier. Several western countries face aging countrysides with dwindling village populations. So there’s this:

  • A sense of linguistic responsibility. If a language is only spoken by the community of one or two villages, either the young are careful enough to pack it with them when they leave for the city — or else the language is going to die.

And that lesson is sort of universal, isn’t it? You have to take care of a language, the same way you would your career, your children or your plants. If you don’t, things go wrong.
Edwin Benson taught Mandan classes. But nobody learned Mandan properly.

So he did the second best thing: He led a million dollar project to collect and document records of the language. He shared everything that he knew with linguists. You can hear him tell a story in Mandan on YouTube. There’s a 2000-page Mandan dictionary that exists only because of him. That’s Edwin Benson’s other lesson:

  • If you can’t save something, preserve it.

Then sometimes, you just have to let things go.

Sometimes, however, you can save a dying language. You can even resuscitate a dead one.

Sanskrit, a language re-re-re-re-revived

Sanskrit is a strange, stubborn language. It might be considered the Latin of the Indian subcontinent — the root of many of its modern languages, used primarily for liturgical purposes in centuries past. It is a language that has been declared dead quite a few times and features prominently in most literature about dead languages. But like Son Goku, it keeps coming back from the dead to join the fight.

As much as we want to think of languages as living beings (that age, mature, die), Sanskrit reminds us that languages are cultural constructs.

  • With enough effort, languages can be revived.

India is a model nation for language preservation. The founders of the nation recognised that languages are critical aspects of culture and that if they wished to preserve the country’s multiculturalism, then they would have to protect its many different languages. So they added a list of all the languages in the constitution that the State has an obligation not only to protect but to develop.

As a result, you now have entire villages where the population is learning Sanskrit again and, more importantly, speaking it. In 2001, this dead language had as many as 14,135 indians speaking it as a first language. Believe it or not, it’s even the official language of “the weirdest town in America.”

Sanskrit also expands your brain. Literally. And it helps you learn coding. At least according to one Buddhist monk’s apprentice, who is now selling stocks in New York.

So, as we pay our respects to languages lost, we should make sure it’s not too somber an affair, celebrating the efforts of revivalists and renewing our commitment to the languages we love the most.

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