Preserving a Language: A Doomed Deed?

In biology, there is a well-known movement towards preventing the disappearance of animal species that inhabit planet Earth. In the science of language, there seems to be a similar effort, though with its own peculiarities and conclusions.


Some argue that the loss of language, just like the loss of species, is simply a fact of life on a constantly evolving planet. But the counterarguments abound.

Because there are so many endangered languages, it is impossible to label one as the rarest or the most threatened, but there are at least 100 in the world with only a handful of speakers left, from the Ainu in Japan to the Yaghan in Chile.


Not to mention the challenge of locating these people. There are a few cases that have gained some attention: Marie Smith Jones passed away in Alaska in 2008, taking to the grave her knowledge of Eyak, a language of the Na-Dené family, traditionally spoken by the inhabitants of the southern area of central Alaska, near the mouth of the Copper River.


Additionally, this phenomenon usually involves older people (sometimes in a precarious state of health) who aren’t out there proclaiming their language skills for the world to notice.

Thus, the conservation of an animal species would include the necessary efforts to preserve the health of the last specimens and, at best, to seek their reproduction. But in the field of linguistic preservation, we encounter other challenges. Although a language is spoken by a number of people, it is not always the case that they live in the same area or, as happened in the case of the pre-Columbian language, Ayapaneco, the last two surviving speakers refused for years to speak to the other because of an ancient dispute.

A possible clue to this dilemma can be found in a pillar of Western literature. The Iliad was an oral history, before it was written, as was The Odyssey. Doesn’t it make you wonder of the abounding number of fundamental works in the world that we will never know about because nobody recorded them before the language disappeared?