Extinct Languages: The Languages We Have Lost in the 21st Century

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Extinct Languages: The Languages We Have Lost in the 21st Century

Did you know 42% of all known languages that exist today are endangered? That’s 3,018 languages at risk!

Unfortunately, we have already lost dozens of languages to extinction in this young century. Here are just a few that we believe should be remembered.


Plains Apache

Region: Oklahoma, United States

Extinct: 24 February 2008

Last Living Native Speaker: Alfred Chalepah, Jr.

The Plains Apache (or Kiowa Apache) language was a Southern Athabaskan language formerly spoken by the Plains Apache or, as they call themselves, the Na’isha.

As of the 1960s, researcher William Bittle claimed there was at best 25 partially-fluent Kiowa Apache speakers (Webster, “A Note on Plains Apache Warpath Vocabulary“). With Chalepah’s death in 2008, there are no native speakers of the language left.

The language is interesting because of its complex system, with a single verb often able to enable entire sentences. Plains Apache also has no adjectives or determiners, and the predominant word order is subject-object-verb.


Aka-Cari

Region: Andaman Islands, India

Extinct: 4 April 2020

Last Living Native Speaker: Licho

The Great Andamanese people included 10 tribes that each had its own language. The tribes were decimated after European colonization brought diseases and conflict, leaving the tribes with few inhabitants.

By 1994, only three of the ten tribes remained (Jeru, Bo, and Cari), with just 38 known people remaining. With the recent extinction of Aka-Cari (or Sare), Aka-Jeru is now the only remaining language of the 10 Great Andamanese tribes – and it is believed only three native speakers remain as of 2020.

This means the entire language family will soon perish, as will the ability to deeply study the language. In recent times, the few remaining tribes lived together and, thus, Present Great Andamanese (PGA) language is a mixture of various tribes’ languages.

What we do know is the language family is unlike any other known language family. It is also anthropocentric, meaning “the human body is the primary model for expressing concepts of spatial orientation, categories and relations between objects and actions and events” (Source).

“The demographic scale of these islanders is inversely related to their degree of contact with mainlanders: the longer the contact, the smaller the population.”


Rennellese Sign Language

Region: Rennell Island

Extinct: Around 2000

Last Living Native User: Kagobai

In the 1970s, Rolf Kuschel visited Rennell Island (Mugaba) in the Solomon Islands and discovered a deaf-mute man named Kagobai (or Kangobai) who had developed a sign language used by himself and others islanders. According to Kuschel, oral tradition stated that no person on the island had ever been deaf, and thus no need for sign language existed before Kagobai was born (around 1915).

The language is notable because it was created by Kagobai without any outside influence – no one on the island knew of any deaf person, let alone any other form of sign language. It was made up of both signs that transcend cultures (such as “stop” by holding up a hand, with the palm facing another person) and those unique to the island and Kagobai’s culture.

However, due to the sign language being centered around Kagobai, this also led to Rennellese Sign Language dying with him. As of 2017, the language has officially been labeled as retired by SIL.


Eyak

Region: Alaska, United States

Extinct: 21 January 2008

Last Living Native Speaker: Marie Smith Jones

The Eyak people are a Native American indigenous group in southeast Alaska, near the Copper River. Their numbers dwindled due to colonization and resource competition. In 2008, the last full-blood Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, passed away.

The language not only declined due to loss of population, but the northward migration of the Tlingit people also replaced Eyat as the primary language for many in the area. Both are Na-Dene languages, which was named by famed anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir.

When Marie Smith Jones died in 2008, many feared Eyak was lost forever. However, French linguist Guillaume Leduey has raised hopes of a revival with his interest in the language. As a youth, he taught himself Eyak, and he is working with the Eyak Preservation Council to bring back the language (see the project here).


Nüshu

Region: Hunan province, China

Extinct: 20 September 2004

Last Living User: Yang Huanyi

“Some experts believe the female-only language dates to the Song dynasty (960-1279) or even the Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago.”

Nüshu script (“women’s script in Chinese”) was used exclusively among women in Jiangyong County in the Hunan province of southern China. The syllabic script is phonetic, with 600 to 700 characters each representing a syllable. It was a way for women to use a coded script to speak freely among their own sex while defying the patriarchal society.

Interestingly, the origin of the script is unknown. It is believed to have been used by peasant women and passed down generationally. The script was not even known outside of the region until the 1980s. Eventually, the last known proficient user of the script, Yang Huanyi, died, and it is now considered a dead language.

But there are major efforts to revitalize the script. The first Nüshu dictionary was published in 2003, and there is now a museum in the village of Puwei dedicated to the script’s history.

By 2100, UNESCO believes that half of the world’s languages will be extinct. That is such a huge loss culturally. It is imperative that we preserve our languages while we still can, as more than a language dies with the last living speaker – a people, a culture, a history, a whole world dies with it.

If you’re interested in languages, we recommend visiting the Endangered Languages Project and UNESCO.

Chart of the world's endangered languages
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