The electronic age drives some languages out of existence, but can help save others
THINK of the solitude felt by Marie Smith before she died earlier this year in her native Alaska, at 89. She was the last person who knew the language of the Eyak people as a mother-tongue. Or imagine Ned Mandrell, who died in 1974–he was the last native speaker of Manx, similar to Irish and Scots Gaelic. Both these people had the comfort of being surrounded, some of the time, by enthusiasts who knew something precious was vanishing and tried to record and learn whatever they could of a vanishing tongue. In remote parts of the world, dozens more people are on the point of taking to their graves a system of communication that will never be recorded or reconstructed.
Does it matter? Plenty of languages–among them Akkadian, Etruscan, Tangut and Chibcha–have gone the way of the dodo, without causing much trouble to posterity. Should anyone lose sleep over the fact that many tongues–from Manchu (spoken in China) to Hua (Botswana) and Gwich’in (Alaska)–are in danger of suffering a similar fate?