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Language Death, Revival …and Parrots? February 20, 2023

Posted by Pete B in Language revitalisation.

Sometime when the last speaker of a language dies, the language dies with them. Sometimes living fragments live on in shared vocabulary and sometimes written records or audio recording remain. In an age where we see value in slowing or even reversing language loss, there may even be attempts to begin teaching the language again.

When the last of the Maypuré people were killed in 1799 by a neighboring tribe, fragments of their language lived on in the brains and voices of their pet parrots.

These were documented by German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, who carefully listened to the parrots and to the best of his ability wrote down all he could of what they said phonetically. Skip forward almost two hundred years to 1997 and something else interesting happened – artist Rachel Berwick, to the best of her ability, took those transcriptions, taught them to a couple of parrots and made an art installation. This made a few news stories at the time but what happened next?

Well to parrot Berwicks own words:

While it was first exhibited in 1997, may-por-é has continued to evolve as I have worked with additional parrots, one pair in Turkey for the Istanbul Biennial in 2001, and another pair in Brazil for the Mercosul Bienal de Porto Alegre in 2004 and finally, Innsbruck, Austria in 2008 for the exhibition “Voice and Void.” For these venues younger parrots learned from my first two parrots. I trained them largely through the use of recordings of my birds and “Berlitz” tapes for lessons. Volunteers who were on site conducted lessons with the young birds and additional lessons were transmitted via the Internet. There are now a total of eight Maypuré speaking parrots worldwide.


The revival of the Maypuré language is definitely limited, and as far as I can tell from some admittedly limited googling there are no known descendants of the actual tribe alive let alone relearning the language.

In many other instances of language death the process has been more gradual but of over 300 languages that are classified as ‘nearly extinct’ almost 40 are (or were) down to the last one or two known fluent speakers in 2022.

Each year there are news stories of the death of the last know speaker and updates to a Wikipedia List of languages by time of extinction. For 2022 it currently lists just two but there may be more:

DateLanguageLanguage familyRegionTerminal speaker
5 October 2022Mednyj AleutMixed AleutRussianCommander Islands, RussiaGennady Yakovlev[1]
16 February 2022YahganIsolatedMagallanes, ChileCristina Calderón[2]

The stories of many of these last speakers are inspirational and today though videos, recordings, and living memory their words live on. By the time a language is almost dead, the chances of reviving it are slim, but not impossible. Stories on language death and language revitalisation will continue to appear on this blog and on wikipedia pages and news sites around the world.

You might even see a few hit the headlines as part of International Mother Language Day each year on Feb 21st.

I hope to follow up with a few more stories of how technology, strategies and above all, people are making a difference.


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