Language in passing

Languages fascinate me, especially living languages. In high school, as someone in the college track, I had to work to get out of taking Latin so I could take French instead.

I didn’t have anything against Latin (et non modo sibilo “Terram Dixonis”); I just wanted to learn a language that people spoke (and not just at the Vatican).

In grad school, I learned that the last native speaker of Cornish died in 1777, a fact that astonished me with its specificity. But of course someone’s bound to be the last speaker of any language, as Dolly Pentreath apparently was with Cornish.

Ned Maddrell was likely the last native speaker of Manx; he died in 1974.

Marie Smith Jones, the last native speaker of EyakBoth cause echoes in my memory; the Scottish Gaelic spoken by my grandparents is not in the best of health.

In yesterday’s paper, I learned of the death of Marie Smith Jones on January 21. Jones, who was 89, was the last full-blooded Eyak, and the last native speaker of her language.

Seven of Jones’s children survive her, though none of them learned Eyak.

Languages inevitably die out, though some like Latin and Greek have a richer afterlife than most others. A couple, like Hebrew, have been resurrected. Down home in Cape Breton, people working to preserve Gaelic get advice from Kohanga Reo (“the nest of the language”), a movement promoting the retention and use of the Maori language.

Kohanga Reo seeks to encourage whole families to speak the language, and especially to have children use it freely. Without that, any effort to preserve a language is a form of artificial life support.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum said at Language Log:

Let me remind you what is necessary for a language to be living: there must be little kids who speak the language with each other because it is their only language or else their favorite. Little kids who would speak it even if they were told not to. It is not enough that a community of grownups (squabbling or not) has learned it from books and reads to each other each Tuesday night in someone’s living room…

…Always remember this, as we head into the sad time of massive language extinctions that is coming. Ask around the village and find the age of the youngest people using a language every day for all their normal conversational interaction. If the answer is a number larger than 5, the language is probably dying. If the answer is a number larger than 10, it is very probably doomed. If the answer is a number larger than 20, you can kiss it goodbye right now: no amount of nostalgic appreciation of it will make it last even one more generation as a going concern. That’s the way languages are.

Ave atque vale to Eyak and to Marie Smith Jones.

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