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

Posted by Pete B in Language revitalisation.
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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.

Writing down unwritten languages isn’t the only thing that’s complicated October 30, 2022

Posted by Pete B in Bible Translation, Language revitalisation, Scripture Engagement.
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For almost 90 years linguists with SIL have been helping to write down languages, so far they’ve produced orthographies for over 1,300 languages.

The web page sil.org/orthography explains

Orthography is how a language is expressed in written form, with the symbols, punctuation, decisions on where to break words and where to join them together, and so on. It draws from linguistics, literacy and education, and sociopolitics. Though orthographies of different languages may resemble each other, each language needs to have an orthography based on that particular language.

Perhaps not surprisingly creating an accepted way of writing down a language is quite complicated and the page currently links to fourteen videos on orthography explaining a bit more about the process.

You can can read the titles very quickly and watch all the videos in just over three hours. You’d learn a lot but you’d still be ‘ll be a long way off being an expert.

There is also an orthography checklist with about 90 points on it. Again, it is pretty complex but apparently not exhaustive – there is always more to ask. I’ve not taken an orthography course and I’ve not watched all the videos but I did read the checklist, and was interested to note that while, not surprisingly, there were quite a few things relating to the science of linguistics, most of the questions are not really about language, they are about people, about their attitudes to reading and writing, what written languages they are already exposed to and what they think of them.

The goal of producing a useable orthography for a language is producing one that will be used and be useful to speakers of that language.

I’ll say that again in a bigger font.

The goal of producing a useable orthography is producing one that will be useful.

Being able to read and write in a language has many, many benefits to a community, even if only some people do much of the writing or the reading.

One of the things new orthographies are used for are is Bible Translation – this is also an incredibly complex process, that usually takes many years. As complicated as it is, orthography is only one part of one the eight conditions identified as necessary for Bible translation to have maximum effect. Again, the goal isn’t just to have a printed book (or an app, or audio recordings, videos, and more). Bible translation is complicated, and helping translation teams and local church to explore what they can to ensure translated scripture become accepted and used is complicated too.

I’ve posted a few brief things about Scripture Engagement in the past, and expect to post many more. For anyone wanting a brief introduction to the complexities I recommend a ten page article called the Eight Conditions of Scripture Engagement, there is a shorter list of the conditions on Scripture-Engagement.org where you can also find lot’s more to read.

I’ll end with a quote from the introduction to the Scripture Engagement site…

It’s not enough to translate the Bible; it’s not enough to distribute the Bible. Our desire is to see real Scripture Engagement: people encountering God’s Word in life-changing ways.


Guernesiais: The Gruffalo & The Gospel August 29, 2020

Posted by Pete B in Language revitalisation.
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It’s a year since modern children’s classic, The Gruffalo, was published in Guernesias as a part of language preservation and revitalisation efforts. These efforts have just received a fresh boost of funding for a revamped Guernsey Language Commission

two books in Guenesiais, the Gruffalo and the Gospel of St Matthew

Meanwhile it’s 157 years since the gospel of Matthew was published in the same language, at a time when a lot more people on the island of Guernsey spoke Guernesias. The translation was commissioned by the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte and an initial run of 250 copies were printed. These details I learned along with other interesting bits of history from the introduction to the 2016 digital version that is available here alongside translations in 1465 languages on Bible.com and the YouVersion Bible app (digitised with the help of MissionAssist). It is also available on Google Books where it also includes a three page pronunciation guide.

Of course the existence and availability of these two books will not be enough to save what is a severely endangered language. The people of Guernsey will have to decide for themselves whether their language is something they wish to preserve and whether that preservation is about recording the last remaining speakers or in capturing the interest of a new generation of speakers. Find out more at https://learnguernsey.com/

If enough people decide they want to keep the language alive then there are lots of things that are possible. I took a free online course in language revival via the University of Adelaide a few years ago and have blogged a few thoughts of my own since.
The course started again today (Aug 29) so far 10,868 people around the world already enrolled.

Cromarty: Death of a Dialect November 21, 2019

Posted by Pete B in Language revitalisation, multilingualism.
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Around the world languages and dialects are disappearing at an alarming rate all over the world, including in the UK. At the end of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, here’s one story of how it can happen.

Various news reports covered the death of Bobby Hogg, the last fluent speaker of the Cromarty dialect, in 2012.

Cromarty is/was a dialect of Scots, which some (falsely) consider to be ‘just’ a dialect of English. (More on that in another post)

Map showing Cromarty and surrounding sea areas addapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shipping_Forecast
Cromarty, well known (to some) as one of 31 Sea areas around the UK
mentioned four times a day in the BBC Shipping forecast

Daniel Kaufman, a linguist who has mapped out over 600 languages and dialects spoken in just one district of New York, states, “The fisherfolk were not victims of genocide or colonialism but of social marginalisation”.

It is not so much that anyone forced them to abandon the grammar and vocabulary of their dialect but rather that it became more useful to them to speak standard Scots and English. Successive generations used the traditional dialect less and less until their are just a few elderly speakers left, and with them dies a whole way of speaking.

In other times and places the death of a language is less of a natural decline and more a case of ‘linguicide’.

Kaufman links biodiversity to linguistic diversity and large scale agriculture to biological leveling, stating that as further industrialisation takes place people move or are moved out of traditional communities into larger towns and cities. Numerous factors affect what is known first as language shift (adopting and putting more emphasis on using another langue) and language loss (the language is used in less ‘domains’ and less people pass the language on to the next generation.)

Join the lecture at 15 minutes in for factors on how languages and dialects die

Some communities value their languages as part of their identity and resist pressures to lose their heritage, others are less concerned or find the pressure to abandon their language to great.

Elizabeth Philips was placed in a residential school as a child and forbidden to speak her home language. ” While other children played, she would stand alone at the outside gate, staring out at the Fraser River and thinking in her language. ”

She is now the last known fluent speaker of Halkomelem.

“I try my best not to lose it, because I can’t have conversation,” she says. “But I text in Halkomelem.” She pauses, then laughs, “The phone is always trying to correct me!”

(APTN Canada 2016, Language Keeper: The last fluent speaker of Stó:lō’s Indigenous dialect in race against time)

It seems inevitable that some languages and cultures will die out. Outsiders should no more try and force people to continue using their traditional language that they should force them not to. But we can recognise that when a language is lost forever it is not just lost to a community but lost to the whole planet.

We can also recognise that it doesn’t have to happen. People do not have to lose one language in order to become proficient in another. Most of the people on the planet are bilingual or multilingual, able to move freely between multiple languages, and able to communicate widely without losing their heritage.

The United Nations declared 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages, a small but significant step to raising awareness.


While that was happening Bible Societies, and churches have been busy preparing for 2020 which has been declared as the Year of the Bible by the World Evangelical Alliance and a number of other organisations.

There will be lots of ideas an initiatives, such as this one…

I’ll be continuing to advocate for churches linking to online Bibles and sharing other ideas about becoming a more multilingual church. I invite others to blog, post or tweet using #multilingualchurch

Technology, games and endangered languages February 4, 2016

Posted by Pete B in Ethnogamification, Language revitalisation.
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Darrick Baxter wanted his daughter to know the language of her grandmother, so he built an iPad app and from there his adventure really started…

Here the rest of the story in his TED talk “How technology is saving Native Tribal Languages”.

For those who haven’t watched the video yet, Darrick tells the story of, and the impact of his app as a tool for helping a new generation connect with their historic language. He made the code for the app available free to others and it now forms the basis of over 60 language apps.

AppGallery at ogokilearning.com

Native American Language Apps created for various tribes and First Nations in Canada and the United States. Find out more at http://www.ogokilearning.com

Some languages die of ‘natural causes’, some are killed. Some ‘dying’ and ‘dead’ languages are being revived and revitalized. Apps alone won’t revive a language but are tools in reviving interest and helping learn some basics.

There are an increasing number of apps and games for both endangered and thriving minority languages, increasing produced within the communities themselves. Ogokilearning provided a technology and game workshop in which 10-15 year olds built their own apps.

Bigger games take big budget and lots of time and talent but as


Sinclair Programs Sept, 1983

someone who got into computing building my own games on 16k ZX81 and 48K Spectrum I’m encouraged to see what can be produced these days with a little enthusiasm and encouragement.

More on apps and games for language development, and scripture engagement in the Ethnogamification tab and in future posts.

Language Revival: should we raise the dead? September 2, 2015

Posted by Pete B in Language revitalisation.
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I just finished a free five week course Language Revival: Securing the Future of Endangered Languages, run by the University of Adelaide. The course is over but as with most MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) you can still sign up and access most of the materials. So why should you?

Does it matter if languages die? Can communities and outsiders do anything about this?

Some of the material is available online via the course YouTube channel but if there is enough to pique your interest then sign up and gain access to videos, transcripts, quizzes and more. Here’s the intro to week 1.

I’ve long been aware that many of the 7000 languages in the world are dying out. As our instructor pointed out “shift happens”. Languages constantly undergo change and some communities gradually move from using one language to another. Some languages die what might be called a natural death. Some are murdered.

Some past and current colonialist and nationalist policies have been responsible for actively killing languages – even to the extent of taking children from their parents and punishing them for speaking their own language.

Australia has a fairly bad history of policies and practices, but so does the USA, Canada, and Britain (If your nation should be adding to this list please feel free to do so in a comment).

An early assignment in the course asked:

“Should we compensate Aboriginal people for the loss of their language? Should current taxpayers carry the burden of paying for a language that was lost 160 years ago? “

Here are some of my own thoughts.

Acknowledging past wrongs is progress, undoing them is impossible, redressing them is complex.

Looking back it is clear that treatment of Aboriginal people and the willful destruction of language and culture is something that should be regretted, acknowledged and addressed – as should so many other past and present wrongs around the globe.

I am not Australian but am British by birth and now also Canadian by virtue of migration and a process of citizenship. Do I also as a result of my birth and adopted heritage share responsibility for the linguicide in both Australia and Canada?

Injustice and inequality can appear easy to spot, identifying the ‘just’ response is more difficult.

When will be called upon to compensate the exploited workers who supply our cheap goods in sweat shops around the globe? When will we provide a fair price to those who grow crops on other continents?

At the same time should there also be appropriate royalties paid to those whose actions have benefited communities and the world in general? Many ‘benefits’ have not involved the free choice of individuals.

If the American colonists had paid their taxes and not sought their independence the Brits might not have seen Australia as such an attractive solution as a place to send some of the early colonists. If the Romans, the Vikings, and the French had not invaded the ancient Britons might have retained more of their own heritage and kept to ourselves. If our own histories had been different we might have treated others better. You can always shift the blame.

Perhaps if things had been done differently in the past there would have been room for some immigrants as welcome guests. Perhaps some language and culture shift would have happened through choice. After all not everything the newcomers brought with them was inherently bad.

“give us choice, not cold coercion, status not discrimination, human rights not segregation” Odgeroo Noonuccal

As a newcomer to this debate I would agree that some current tax dollars should be spent on supporting and revitalising aboriginal languages.

This makes sense not only from a view of justice and reparation but also to extent an economic argument in terms of the benefits of improving identity and esteem. In my own country tax payers are paying for projects to revitalise languages such as Welsh, Manx, Gaelic, and Cornish, as well as on a variety of other projects around heritage.

Meanwhile, on the subject of heritage one report on BBC radio recently reported on the “terrible loss” of some of Britain’s pubs. Some are now protected as listed buildings. There was even mention of a 1920s London pub demolished by the owners which apparently should be rebuilt according to some in the community.

The Royal Oak in Bethnal Green, London, is now preserved for future generations

The Royal Oak in Bethnal Green, London, is now preserved for future generations

…and if it’s worth saving historic pubs, (along with historic castles, churches, and bus stations ). Then it’s hard to say it’s not worth saving languages.

Of course who’s time and money is used is another matter.

Ayapanec: The ‘Vodophone sponsored’ language that came back from the dead July 1, 2015

Posted by Pete B in Language revitalisation.
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This post was originally published July 2015

Does a language die when the last speaker dies or when the second to last speaker dies? Does it die when the two remaining speakers aren’t talking to each other? This is a good news story of a language, a culture, and a friendship being reinvigorated.

There are still only two people* who speak Ayapanec as a first language but people are learning and there seems to be some energy and enthusiasm about the new language school.

Even if the closest you get to Tabasco is trying the sauce, you can learn a word or two of the language, video yourself (or a school class) speaking it, and in doing so encourage the next generation that their traditional language is worth investing time in.

For Vodaphone, sponsors of http://www.ayapaneco.com [2019, site no longer live but archived here], it’s a great good news story of people talking. Often technology is cited as contributing to the extinction of some of the worlds endangered languages, but there are an ever increasing number of cases where it contributes to the health and revitalisation of languages, not just saved as remnants of the past, but alive as living languages alongside other languages used by the communities.

*Update Nov 2019
Vodophone’s version of the story has been disputed (See Who Can Save Ayapaneco?) and their involvement ‘overstated’. There were apparently at least four speakers and they’d been working together for a few years. The language is still endangered but interesting things are happening and some people are trying to make a difference including university students who have been working on a new Ayapeneco App (article is in Spanish but Google can translate from that quite well if you don’t speak Spanish)

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