In February 2010, Boa Snr, the last living speaker of
the ancient language of Bo, died in the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of
Bengal. She was in her 80s but the language was many thousands of years
old. With her died a store of folk memory, songs and stories, a part of
human culture. Not the language, of course. She was the last speaker, so
the language died many years ago. Linguists debate how many speakers
you need for a language to survive much as zoologists debate how many
animals you need for a species to be viable.
It gives rise to a fundamental debate
about value. Does it matter if a language dies? The Darwinian or the
Neoliberal might say that if a language dies, that’s because it no
longer serves a purpose and no amount of propping up is going to help
it. Such arguments are sometimes heard to scorn efforts to support the
Welsh or Cornish languages, or the efforts taken by the Irish government
to preserve the speaking of Gaelic. But others disagree of course. For
them, a language is not merely a tool, a means of communication; it’s
also a storehouse of human history, a repository of knowledge,
speculation and imagination, a record of how other people thought that
helps us to understand ourselves and our history.
I think there’s a play in this.