last speakers

The first time dead languages came to my attention outside of a history book was discovering the work of artist Rachel Berwick. Berwick worked with a linguist and bird behaviourist to train two parrots to speak a dead language, Maypore. The installation that resulted is meant to be a reflection on loss, and the urge to recover the irrecoverable.

Then this past Sunday, in the New York Times’ Magazine, I read a particularly good article that discussed the subject of dead and dying languages. According to the article, 6,000 languages spoken around the world will be extinct by the end of the century. They cite the global influence of English as one prominent reason for this. They interview the last speakers of Kawesqar, a language spoken on an island in Patagonia.

With so many languages in jeopardy, there are several movements afoot to save them. There are also a few “let them die a natural death” movements. I suppose I am in the “save the languages” camp – the arguments that languages are themselves testaments to human knowledge, and that they have unmatched power to reveal both the interior and exterior worlds of their speakers, are pretty compelling. (The frequent use of holy objects as Quebecois curse words, in one good example, reveals a long and complicated relationship with the Catholic Church, tabernac!)

What’s a language without its speakers? In the case of Berwick’s installation, the parrots are a shadow of what the living language used to be, the birds’ use of Maypore an intentionally shallow echo. In the case of the last speaker of Kawesqar, or the last speaker of any human language, those involved in the preservation effort have no choice but to use them as the template, to rush to interview them and preserve what little remains. But one sample is an information-starved study. The purpose of language can be distilled to dialogue with other humans, after all.

I’d certainly feel the pressure, in the unlikely event that I suddenly became the last speaker of English. Romantic though it might be, and lucrative, too. (Apparently the last speaker of Yaghan charges admission.) I can imagine the difficulties I’d have, trying to explain the meanings and uses of “run that one up the flagpole and see who salutes” or “dog’s breakfast” to the linguists and anthropologists who came to interview me.