The BBC reported yesterday that the last speaker of an ancient language called Bo had died. Boa, who was approximately 85 years old, had been the last speaker of her native language for more than 30 years. She lived on the Andaman Islands, in the Indian Ocean. Linguists believed her language to be one of the world's oldest, originating in Africa during the Neolithic period. Bo is the second Andaman language to have disappeared in the last three months. You can hear what Bo sounded like here (scroll down for the audio link).
Advocates of Esperanto say that languages divide people, and that the adoption of a global language will bring peace and understanding to our divided species. I went through a brief fascination with Esperanto in middle school, when I first started to learn Latin, and it seemed obvious that we'd all be better off if we just spoke the same language.
Thirty years later, that strikes me as a little simplistic. I still think we ought to be able to communicate with each other, but more and more I see the value of learning someone else's language, and preserving those differences. We can feel things we don't have names for, but we can't know something until we give it a name. Societies define themselves by how they name the things that are important to them, which is why it matters whether we call someone "crippled" or "disabled" (to give one example). When I moved to Los Angeles, I took Spanish classes. It was important to me that I be able to watch Telemundo or Univision, or read La Opinion. (I should admit that my Spanish never got good enough for me to have a conversation; newspaper headlines and "Sabado Gigante" are about the limits of my ability.)
Anyway, of the approximately 7,000 languages human beings speak, linguists estimate that about 3,000 are in danger of extinction. These are five (of approximately 100) about to disappear from North America.
1. Lipan Apache. Spoken by two people in 1981, it may now be extinct. The last two speakers lived on the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico, and the community that once spoke Lipan Apache now speaks English.
2. Hupa. Spoken by eight people in 1998, it is taught in primary schools on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in northwest California. Language immersion camps are also being offered to adults.
3. Osage. A language of the Sioux, spoken by five people as of 1992, in north central Oklahoma.
4. Tolowa. Four speakers in 1994, in southwest Oregon. The tribe that spoke this language is extinct, although a population survey in 2000 identified 1,000 people with an ethnic connection to the language.
5. Tuscarora. Four speakers in the US in 1997, seven in Canada in 1991. An Iroquois language that had its own dictionary and grammar; the few remaining native speakers live on the Tuscarora Reservation near Niagara Falls, NY.
The source of all of this information (and so much more) is Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 16th Edition, edited by M. Paul Lewis and published by SIL International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable language development. You can buy a copy here.