Human communication adapts to the needs of a people group at a specific time, and when it comes to the spoken word it’s common to observe the gradual decline and eventual extinction of different languages.
In this blog post we’ll identify four languages that are on the verge of extinction — but who knows, perhaps this post will encourage you to start learning one of them!
Kallawaya is a native language of Central South America. Spanish and Portuguese have dominated the spoken language in the region, leaving lesser-known languages, such as Kallawaya, to remain bound to the tight-knit communities from which they emerged. Kallawaya shares its name with the ancient community of travelling, medicinal healers who reside in the Andes of Bolivia. The language contains various esoteric words that describe the community’s medical knowledge, illustrating how closely a language can be tied to a specific community’s communicative needs. Today, only a handful of individuals still speak the language, having previously learned it from their ancestors.
Mednyj Aleut has a relatively uncommon origin as it emerged from two different languages (Aleut and Russian), whereas most languages only have a single parent language. Mednyj Aleut is spoken on Bering Island, one of Russia’s Commander Islands in the Russian Far East. However, the number of remaining native speakers are in the single digits, which is perhaps due to the both the particularity and complexity of the language: Mednyj Aleut was spoken by people who had both Aleut and Russian parents – a relatively small demographic. However, Mednyj Aleut is spoken with a combination of Aleut nouns and Russian verbs, with the full inflection of both source languages. This entails that Mednyj Aleut is a particularly unforgiving language to learn, and one that serves little purpose in today’s world either.
Papua New Guinea is home to approximately 800 different languages, so it’s easy to see that there’s significant competition for languages to stay relevant and survive. Suena is used in Morobe Province, and was a popular language among the Yawari people during the 20th Century. However, the Binandere language has become more popular, and Suena is now on the verge of extinction.
Cornish is the historic language of the people associated with Cornwall in the United Kingdom. Unlike the other languages in this post, Cornish has actually been considered a dead language and then revived again in 2010. The language is a descendant of the British Celtic language, which was later replaced by the English language. For the people of Cornwall, the Cornish language provides a source of identity and local kinship, and it stands as an example that languages can not only cease to exist if they are no longer needed, but that they can be brought back to life again if certain needs (such as a desire to rediscover local identity) are required.
It’s interesting to see how lesser-known language are formed to serve a particular purpose within a particular context and then die when they are no longer needed. However, Cornish does provide hope to lovers of languages nearing extinction: if a language is relevant to you and just a small handful of other people too, then it continues to serve a purpose and can even return from the dead!