Millennium briefing: the death of language

Prospect Magazine

Millennium briefing: the death of language

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Half of the world’s languages are likely to die in the next century. Unless we do something to reverse this trend, we will lose the cultural and linguistic diversity which is so essential to human development

A language dies only when the last person who speaks it dies. One day it is there; the next, it is gone. Here is how it happens. In late 1995, a linguist, Bruce Connell, was doing some field work in the Mambila region of Cameroon. He found a language called Kasabe, which no westerner had studied before. It had just one speaker left, a man called Bogon. Connell had no time on that visit to find out much about the language, so he decided to return to Cameroon a year later. He arrived in mid-November, only to learn that Bogon had died on 5th November, taking Kasabe with him.

On 4th November, Kasabe existed as one of the world’s languages; on 6th November, it did not. The event might have caused a stir in Bogon’s village. If you are the last speaker of a language, you are often considered special

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Author

David Crystal

The author is honorary professor of linguistics at the University Wales at Bangor 


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