Language Death

The Rosetta Stone

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.