Thursday, October 4, 2012

When a Language Dies

Can you imagine English being a dying language one day? 

A small piece of English died yesterday, with the last "Cromarty" native speaker in Scotland dying, at the age of 92.  The dialect was several hundred years old and was the English once spoken in a remote fishing village in Northern Scotland.

Other dialects and languages have have died in my lifetime.  People are attempting to revive one of these languages, Manx, whose last native speaker (in the Isle of Man) died in 1974.

We don't think much about languages dying, but in fact, their death rate has accelerated in the 20th and 21st centuries. Sometimes, an entire culture dies with the last native speaker, which happened in the Indian Ocean with a woman by the name of Boa Sr. in 2010.

In our world, increasingly interconnected, speech is becoming more standardized.  We can think of this as a good thing.  I am utilizing this technology in my blog, written in English, and I post each post knowing that millions of people all over the world are able to read it - and understand it. (I hope)

Nice, isn't it.

But one of the strengths of the English language is its richness.  We have many words in English taken from other languages, and an author with an excellent vocabulary can choose from many words, each with a slightly different meaning, to express something.   Without different languages, which express the world view of their speakers, the richness of our world is diminished.

Note that I talk about both "dialect" and "language". I am not a linguist, and a linguist may disagree with this statement, but a dialect tends to be more a regional subset of a language.  In the United States northerners and southerners can use different vocabulary, but both are still speaking English.

Meanwhile, due to the passing of one Bobby Hogg, our living vocabulary is poorer.

Never again will we hear about "greengaw", the slimy grass left when the tide recedes. (Did anyone know English had a word for this?)  Or "roosky", meaning dirty? 

Cromarty will survive in recordings.  And there are some people in that area of Scotland who have some knowledge of the Cromarty dialect.   But, we need to beware of too much standardization in our world.  Homogenized isn't always better, although it is easier.




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