December 29 – A Language Goes Extinct (kinda sorta)

Posted on December 29, 2015

Have you ever thought about languages being endangered or going extinct? Some people do think about such things, and some of them even strive to learn about languages before such extinctions wipe out a little more human culture and diversity.

On this date in 2003, the last fluent speaker of Akkala Sami died.

Some people peg this as a language extinction event, but others point out that there are at least two people still alive (although they are in their 70s) who have some knowledge of Akkala Sami. 

Also, there are descriptions of the language, a few published writings in the language, and at least a few audio recordings of the language.

Although Akkala Sami is one of the most poorly documented languages, we have at least some knowledge of the language that isn't likely to disappear any time soon. So, some experts say, Akkala Sami isn't wholly extinct – it's just very highly endangered.

Where do the Sami live?

The Sami people live in the Arctic are in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula of Russia. They used to be called Lapps by English speakers, and they are famous for herding reindeer

The Akkala Sami live in the easternmost part of their land, in Russia.

Should we care about languages going extinct?

According to a PBS show called The Linguists, languages are “repositories of thousands of years of a people's science and art.”

Of course children in small communities will want to speak the language of the majority group, the language of power – in the case of the Akkala Sami, probably Russian; in the case of other language communities, quite likely English or Hindi or Mandarin or Spanish. But when there are no more speakers of a particular language, we often lose the oral or written histories of the people, their myths and legends, their observations about the healing properties of a particular kind of leaf or about the climate changes of the land.

Another point is that a greater diversity of languages to study broadens our view of what is “normal” or even possible. To give examples just from a few languages from New Guinea: one language in New Guinea has 90 sounds (English has only 44); one language in New Guinea uses the same word for eat, drink and smoke; one language in New Guinea has 11 different ways to say on.

Of course, the loss of one of the less-spoken languages causes some loss of cultural identity. I think most of us like the idea of a melting pot and understand why people might want to, say, marry and start families with people outside of their own community and assimilate with the dominant culture. But I think we also “get” why it is important for most people to remember the traditions, holidays, religion, stories, and, yes, language, of their ancestors.

A final possible reason to care about the dying out of a language is that bilingualism (or multilingualism) is healthy for individuals, and it would be far better for kids in minority-language communities to learn both their ancestral tongue and the language of the dominant culture. Why settle for just one?

Also on this date:

Scientist Carl Ludwig's birthday (he's a pioneer in the study of urine!)  

Explorer and scientist Joaquin de Acosta's birthday

Plan ahead:

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