How To Revive An Extinct Language

December 2, 2011 by totalityservices

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We’ve read about endangered and minority languages and how many people are passionate about keeping these languages alive. But what about languages that have not had the same linguistic forces behind them and have died out like the woolly mammoth did thousands of years ago? Can we really revive an extinct language? Language death occurs when the level of linguistic competence of a group speaking the language decreases eventually leading to there being no native or fluent speakers of the language in question.

Many languages have died with the last native speaker never to be heard of again, often leaving no written records. But some fare a much better fate, unlike living species dead languages can be revived.  One such example is Hebrew in Israel; this is the only language where a revival has meant new speakers in everyday life. This revival came about in the late 19th century with the movement of Jews and Judaism into Palestine, taking it from its status as a liturgical language to a literary language, and a lingua franca. Without written Hebrew religious texts the revival of written Hebrew would not have been possible.

It’s evident that written sources are the only permanent connections we have with a language. But without any speakers of an extinct language how do we go about deciphering it and then, eventually, breathing new life into it? Translation of course! Just as the Rosetta Stone (the ‘original’ translation) helped us to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, so to can translations in dead languages. If corresponding texts exist in both a living language and a dead language it may be possible to reconstruct the grammar and vocabulary of the one we have lost. Such a case came to light in Massachusetts with the Native American language Wôpanâak (part of the Algonquian language family).

A translation of a bible from English into Wôpanâak by English settlers in Massachusetts in 1663, as well as translations of a large corpus of other texts, is the source of the revival. The settlers in fact helped document the language spoken by the Natives as they helped promote literacy in the area. In 1993 a lady called Jessie Little Doe Baird, a descendant of the Mashpee Wampanoag Native Americans and a student of Algonquian linguistics, set about reviving her linguistic roots, and has succeeded in recreating the grammar and in creating a dictionary.

Some languages may be regarded as ‘dead’, technically speaking (as there are no native speakers) such as Old English and Latin, however these in fact never simply evolved. Old English into Middle English, Early Modern and Modern English; and Latin ‘giving birth’ to the Romance language family. We are all helping, in some way, to keep these languages alive.

But what is clear is that it is possible to revive an extinct language through the existence of translations and a lot of hard work, if they are to continue to live on they need to adapt. Language is like a living creature, and so it needs to be fed with new words and relevant concepts and nurtured by native speakers and writers to be able to stand the tests of time.

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