Language Extinction in the 21st Century

Believe it or not, we lose languages. I know, I know. It is hard to believe. How could it be possible that there might only be one person left in the entire world that speaks a specific language and they, well, ya know. That language is lost forever. If we are lucky, and we often aren’t, that language has been preserved somehow, either through text or audio recording. But usually, those languages vanish into obscurity, never to be heard again.

If you really think about it, the loss of languages seems like a fairly obvious occurrence. Before mass immigration and emigration, it would be less likely that a language could spread from one region to another. A declining village may not be able to pass on that language quickly enough to maintain it. But what if I told you, we lost a language in the year 2000. Surprised? How about if I told you we lost a language this year (2013)? That’s right. Even with globalization, languages are going extinct.
Since the year 2000, we’ve lost many languages, each with an important history. I want to share three of those histories with you today.

(In chronological order)

Sowa (2000)

Sowa was a language spoken by a village on the Pentecost Island in Vanuatu, a small nation in the South Pacific Ocean. During colonization, a mass displacement of people took place. Diverse groups homogenized and by the 1960s, the language was already beginning to disappear and by the year 2000, the language was extinct.

But, there is good news. Stories were compiled in the original Sowa language in hopes of capturing the history of the language. Additionally, researchers that studied the language had written large vocabulary lists that are now being used in an attempt to reconstruct the language.

Eyak (2008)

Eyak is an extinct Na-Dené language historically spoken by the Eyak people, indigenous to south-central Alaska, near the mouth of the Copper River.
Although the extinction itself is an interesting story involving migration and the merging of culture, it is what happened after the extinction that is the real story. You see, the language went extinct…or so we thought.

In 2010, the Anchorage Daily News, an Alaskan publication, ran a story about a French student (France French, not Canadian French) who had learned Eyak through materials he had compiled including print and audio instructional material. He had never visited Alaska nor had he had any contact with native Eyak speakers. Nevertheless, he learned the language and is now considered a fluent speaker, translator, and educator of the Eyak language.

Livonian (2013)

Livonian, a language spoken by a small population in Latvia, became extinct this year. There has been a massive push to resurrect the language but because Livonians are a small minority it Latvia, the opportunities to speak it are extremely limited. That being said, the language is still being advanced, mostly by a young group of Livonians that started the Livonian Cultural Centre. Additionally, the language is still taught to students in universities in Latvia, Estonia, and Finland giving rise to a growing population of second-language speakers.

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