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Last week a woman called Marie Smith Jones died. She was 89 years old and she lived in Alaska in North America. Marie was the last person alive to speak a language called Eyak. Eyak is, or was, one of the native North American languages. Linguists have carefully recorded Eyak grammar and vocabulary and pronunciation. But no-one speaks Eyak any more. It is a dead language.

We do not have an official language in Britain, but most people of course speak English or a dialect of English. There are several other native or indigenous languages in Britain. They are descended from the languages spoken by the Celtic people who lived in Britain before the English arrived in the 4th and 5th centuries. The most important is Welsh, which is spoken by about more than half a million people in Wales, or about 20% of the population. Welsh and English now have equal official status in Wales. If you visit Wales, you will see that all road signs are in English and Welsh. Welsh is flourishing.

Two other Celtic languages, Scots Gaelic in Scotland and Irish Gaelic in Northern Ireland are spoken by only a few percent of the population. Another Celtic language in South-West England – called Cornish – died out completely in the 19th century, just like Eyak has died out. It was re-introduced about 100 years ago and today Cornish is spoken by a few thousand people.

It is interesting that we use some of the same words for languages as we use for plants and animals. Here are some examples:

  • We talk about native or indigenous plants or animals – that means the plants and animals which live naturally in a place, and have been there a long time. Similarly, we talk about native or indigenous languages, like English in England, or Irish Gaelic in Ireland.
  • We can say that modern horses are descended from wild horses. Similarly, we can say that modern Welsh is descended from an old Celtic language.
  • We can say, for instance, that wolves have died out in Britain. Similarly, we can say that the Eyak language has died out.
  • We can say that an animal like the rhinocerous is endangered; and we can also say that a language is endangered, if the number of people speaking it is very small.
  • Of course some species of animals are flourishing – probably their numbers are growing and they are not likely to die out. Similarly, we can say that today the Welsh language is flourishing.
  • And some species of animals or birds die out, but are then re-introduced into the wild. We have several examples of this in England, particularly a bird called the red kite. Similarly, we can say that the Cornish language has been re-introduced.

I have also read in the paper that some experts think that three quarters of the world’s languages will die out in the next 100 years. Do you think that this will happen? Perhaps languages and animals die out for similar reasons – reasons such as over-exploitation of natural resources, modern travel and tourism, and population movement. How many people will speak English one hundred years from now? English is widely spoken as a second language today, partly because of British colonial history, and partly because of American economic power. However, 100 years from now, British colonial history will be a long way in the past, and American economic power may be much less. What languages will your grandchildren and great-grandchildren learn? Chinese perhaps?

Photo by iwouldstay/flickr

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