Andrew Dalby on lost and threatened languages
Andrew Dalby is a linguist and historian; the languages in his repertoire include Sanskrit, Pali, French, Latin, Greek, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, German, and Burmese. His latest book, Language in Danger, considers the consequences of the current language crisis, in which a language is dying every two weeks.
1. The Indus Valley script
Written on clay tablets of about 2200BC found at Mohenjo-Daro and other sites in what is now Pakistan. In spite of many attempts, the script is as yet undeciphered. Does it belong to one of the language families still spoken in southern Asia? Did the speakers of this unknown language eventually succumb to an Indo-Aryan invasion? You can read more about the script and the attempts to decipher it in Deciphering the Indus Script by Asko Parpola, and Harappan Civilization and its Writing by Walter A Fairservis.
When did Cornish die? Was it in 1777 at the death of Dorothy Jeffrey? Out of the circle of fishwives of Mousehole, near Penzance, who still used Cornish in their everyday gossiping, she was the one who did the talking. Hers were the last conversations in Cornish. Or was it in 1891 at the death of John Davey of Zennor, who, when he was a boy, learnt to speak some words of Cornish from his grandfather? Those were the last words of inherited Cornish, and no one else who heard them could understand them. Will Cornish come back from the grave? Will anyone ever again learn it in infancy, as a first language? Perhaps not, but you can read about Cornish and its history in The Story of the Cornish Language by Peter Berresford Ellis.
When did Egyptian die? Not so very long ago. Hieroglyphs were last used at the time of the Roman Empire, 2,000 years ago. Egyptian was still the language of millions in Egypt, and it lived on. Known as Coptic, it was now written in a version of the Greek alphabet. Coptic had a flourishing literature under the Byzantine Empire. It had survived a thousand years of domination by Greeks and Romans, and it survived another thousand years of Arabic-speaking, Islamic domination. Even after that, as it finally disappeared from daily life, the liturgy of the Christian church of Egypt was still in Coptic, so the language was still heard. Now the Coptic liturgy is a thing of the past, and Egyptian Christian culture is under increasing pressure. The story of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs is in The Keys of Egypt by Lesley Adkins.
4. Eve’s language
A Russian linguist recently claimed to have reconstructed ‘Eve’s language’, the language that is ancestral to all those spoken today. But can we take the reconstruction seriously? DNA studies suggest that ‘Eve’, the female ancestor of all living human beings, is to be dated about 140,000 years ago. Most historical linguists believe they cannot take linguistic reconstruction back further than about 10,000 to 15,000 years. In any case, ‘Eve’, and the man or men privileged to impregnate her, were probably bilingual, like so many of their descendants. To find out more, read LL Cavalli-Sforza’s The History and Geography of Human Genes.
Cherokee is an Iroquoian language, although the Cherokee were not one of the original five nations of the Iroquois. Most Cherokee now live in Oklahoma, a long way west of their historic territory. Cherokee has its own unique writing system, a syllabary devised in 1821 by Sequoyah – just at the right time to be used in print by the early Christian missionaries to the Cherokee. With 10,000 speakers and plenty of printed texts, Cherokee is among the most flourishing of the indigenous languages of North America. But few if any children are now being brought up to speak it as a first language. Will it survive to the next generation? Find out in Thornton Russell’s The Cherokees: a Population History. And, for the Cherokee syllabary, read A Dictionary of Languages by Andrew Dalby.
The Irish language, after centuries of discrimination, became the national language of independent Ireland, with special privileges to encourage its use ahead of English. The ‘Gaeltacht’, the small districts where Irish was still in everyday use, were singled out for economic aid. 70 years later, a million people claim to speak Irish. Few of them use it regularly. Even in the Gaeltacht, the use of Irish is in decline and hardly any children are now learning it as their first language. On the interplay between Irish and English, try Compulsory Irish by Adrian Kelly. On the language itself, Irish by Joe Sheils.
After an equally long struggle with official monolingualism, Welsh successfully reasserted itself in the second half of the 20th century. It has half a million speakers and a TV channel. Welsh comes first in all sorts of official contexts, from road signs to graduation ceremonies. Practically all of those speakers are bilingual; most of them use English regularly for some purposes. When the time comes, how many of their children will bring their children up in Welsh? On the language situation in Wales over the last 100 years, read Let’s Do Our Best for the Ancient Tongue by Geraint H Jenkins and Mari A Williams. On the language itself, try Janet Davies’s Welsh Language.
Greek can be traced back in writing for 3,400 years – about as long as Chinese. No other living language can claim so long a recorded history as these two. Greek isn’t threatened, surely. It’s the language of two nation states, Greece and Cyprus. But what’s the language of tourism in Greece? What language is spoken by young people in Greece who want to make money and get ahead? Follow the history of Greek in Greek by LR Palmer, and discover more about the language in David A Hardy’s Greek Language and People.
French is threatened too. Count the words of English that are used in French teenspeak, or listen to the French media and pick out the English words that everyone in France is now assumed to understand. Watch the adverts: the brand names are in English, the catchphrases are in English, and the voice-over is in a caricatured, over-the-top English accent. And it works! You can read about language politics in France in Philip Thody’s Le Franglais; or, on the language itself, try Celia Dixie’s French Language, Life and Culture.
No. English isn’t threatened. When every other language in the world has gone, English will still be there. So why worry?…