The Loneliness of the Long Distance Speaker: Linguistic Isolation in the Modern World

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages. Every two weeks, she’ll uncover curious stories about language from around the globe for Lingua Obscura.

A language becomes extinct when its last speaker dies, but some argue that language death really occurs when the second last speaker dies, because for the lone remaining speaker, there is no one left to talk to.

The curious story of Ayapaneco, an endangered language from the state of Tabasco in Mexico, sparked worldwide interest when it was reported that the last two speakers of the language were not speaking to each other. What a thought! It is the expressive richness of language, the use of our own native tongues, that allows us to explore, fluidly and fluently, what it means to be human, to strengthen social bonds within our communities, to understand and be understood. The very notion of knowing a native language, the one in which you can best express yourself, and not being able to use it ever again, is poignant to say the least.

The telecommunications company Vodafone found it dramatic enough to conduct a rather ham-fisted viral marketing push around ‘revitalizing’ the critically endangered language. Though the real story may have been more complex, it is the idea that so many of the world’s languages, represented by one lonely last speaker who has no one left to talk to, are in urgent need of urgent rescue from extinction that many find compelling.

Consider that of the world’s 6,500 odd languages, roughly half are in danger of extinction within the century, as reported in Mark Turin’s 2012 paper on endangered languages. Furthermore, as the study states, “According to conservative estimates, 97% of the world’s people speak 4% of the world’s languages. Conversely, 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by 3% of the worlds people. Over 1,500 languages – one quarter of the total number of living speech forms – have fewer than 1,000 speakers. We now know that at least 50% of the world’s languages are losing speakers, some of them at a dramatic rate. Up to 90% of the world’s speech forms may be replaced by dominant regional, national or international languages by 2100.” David Crystal “suggests that an average of one language every 2 weeks may vanish over the next 100 years” and states that around 70 languages have got just one speaker left.

The situation, in a nutshell, is critical, and is what some have dramatically termed ‘linguicide’. As Turin puts it “certain languages are simply so socially dynamic, economically effective, politically well positioned, and downright successful that they eat up other speech forms… We may have to concede that the nicer that people are with one another (socially, economically and physically), the nastier that their languages are with each other.” That is to say, the more people want to interact and connect in a global, modern world using literate technologies that reach long distances and remote areas, the more dominant languages, such as English, Chinese, Spanish and the other usual suspects suppress and obliterate less well-known and well-travelled languages, linguistically and socially isolated languages, many of which (around 40%) have an oral tradition and no writing system.

On the surface, there isn’t anything wrong with people wanting to communicate with each other in a language they all understand. A global language certainly has its advantages. But it isn’t all beer and skittles. In the past many dominant languages rose to prominence through direct, violent or punitive colonial policies targeting indigenous and ancestral languages, including massacre and even genocide, setting off an inevitable trend towards language obsolescence. Modern factors are rather more insidious and harder to mitigate. According to Kenneth Hale, “language loss in the modern period is of a different character, in its extent and in its implications. It is part of a much larger process of LOSS OF CULTURAL AND INTELLECTUAL DIVERSITY in which politically dominant languages and cultures simply overwhelm indigenous local languages and cultures, placing them in a condition which can only be described as embattled. The process is not unrelated to the simultaneous loss of diversity in the zoological and botanical worlds.” In the face of fast-paced industrialized life, the diversity of the world’s languages, much like ecological diversity, is in peril. Linguists are racing to document and preserve as much linguistic knowledge as possible but revitalization requires both community and political will and engagement to do more than simply recording a language’s words and structure before helplessly watching it die.

“It is agonising to stand beyond and watch one’s own community as it moves towards death. It is rare to be able to stand inside and watch, feel and ultimately understand as one’s culture and language are swallowed up by the forces of a larger world; and to survive the catastrophe alive, but a different person, suddenly a part of the rogue species itself”, Peggy Mohan reflects in her study on language death.

For some communities with healthier native speaker populations, modern technology and modern culture can go a long way in helping to revitalize their own native tongues, by encouraging young people to learn, play and create with their own community languages. Many of the last remaining speakers of critically endangered languages, now in the last years of their lives, are working tirelessly with linguists to record their lost language, building word lists and dictionaries and educational materials for future generations, such as Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language.

For other linguistically isolated communities, some might think it would have been better if they’d never made contact with the modern world in the first place. In 2012, the Mashco-Piro Indian tribe of Peru, one of fifteen uncontacted groups in the Amazon, killed the only person who could communicate with them. The bewildering crime appeared deliberate as they called out to Nicolas “Shaco” Flores by name, a local Matsiguenka Indian who could communicate with them as he knew two related dialects, before shooting him. This seemed to be a determined warning against the modern world encroaching upon an older culture. Governments in Peru and Brazil have acted to shield remote tribes from contact but even so, inevitable interactions with the modern world may have a devastating impact on the health of the tribe. One such case is that of the most isolated man on the planet, so called by Slate, the last remaining member of an Amazonian tribe who has so far avoided all contact with modern society.

Without contact and collaboration with linguists, the culture and language of a remote community might be preserved in situ, but for how long? Once the sole member of a group dies without speaking to anyone, their linguistic knowledge will be lost forever. Those who have had to straddle the divide between the dormant ancestral language they knew as a child and the dominant language that replaced it at least have bilingualism to fall back on. As their ancestral language falls into disuse, from lack of people to talk to, they become less practiced as speakers and are more like ‘rememberers’ of a language, where the dominant language may well color their linguistic memories. The loss may not be immediately apparent as these speakers can still talk and interact with others in their local and wider communities, even if it is no longer in their mother tongue.

For Boa Sr., the last native speaker of Aka-Bo of the Andaman Islands in India, one of the world’s oldest languages, later life was much lonelier without anyone who she could speak to in her own language. According to Professor Anvita Abbi, a linguist who knew Boa Sr. well, “after the death of her parents, Boa was the last Bo speaker for 30 to 40 years. […] Since she was the only speaker of [Bo] she was very lonely as she had no one to converse with […] and had to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with people.” Boa Sr. considered the nearby Jarawa tribe, who had not been nearly as affected as hers had been by interactions with the modern world, lucky to be able to live in the forest away from settlers. With the recent death of Boa Sr. in 2010, Aka-Bo became an extinct language, a devastating loss for the world’s linguistic diversity.

Many of us understand the urgency in protecting the natural world’s endangered species, if the melancholy depiction of lone pandas and polar bears are anything to go by, but do we recognize the importance in protecting and revitalizing our own human languages, to prevent the handful of speakers of centuries old languages from being the last of their kind?


JSTOR Citations

Voices of vanishing worlds: Endangered languages, orality, and cognition

By: MARK TURIN

Análise Social, Vol. 47, No. 205 (2012), pp. 846-869

Instituto Ciências Sociais da Universidad de Lisboa

Endangered Languages

By: Ken Hale, Michael Krauss, Lucille J. Watahomigie, Akira Y. Yamamoto, Colette Craig, LaVerne Masayesva Jeanne and Nora C. England

Language, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 1-42

Linguistic Society of America

Endangered

By: Robert E. Moore

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Vol. 9, No. 1/2 (June 1999), pp. 65-68

Wiley on behalf of American Anthropological Association

Stages in the Obsolescence of Certain Eastern Algonquian Languages

By: Janie Rees-Miller

Anthropological Linguistics,, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter, 1998), pp. 535-569

The Trustees of Indiana University on behalf of Anthropological Linguistics

Ishi's Long Road Home

By: Bruce Bower

Science News, Vol. 157, No. 2 (Jan. 8, 2000), pp. 24-25

Society for Science & the Public

From Terror to Genocide: Britain's Tasmanian Penal Colony and Australia's History Wars

By: Benjamin Madley

Journal of British Studies,, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan., 2008), pp. 77-106

Cambridge University Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies

Two Faces of a Language Death

By: Peggy Mohan

India International Centre Quarterly , Vol. 11, No. 2, LANGUAGE (JUNE 1984), pp. 133-144

India International Centre

Last Speakers and Language Change: Two Californian Cases

By: William W. Elmendorf

Anthropological Linguistics,, Vol. 35, No. 1/4, A Retrospective of the Journal Anthropological Linguistics: Selected Papers, 1959-1985 (1993), pp. 274-287

The Trustees of Indiana University on behalf of Anthropological Linguistics

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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