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23 September 2014
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Language ecology
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In defence of 'lost' languages
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How would it feel to be the last speaker of your language?

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Did You Know?
Foreign Language Syndrome occurs when people with brain injuries lose the ability to talk in their native accent. After a stroke, George Reynolds developed an Italian accent.
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Why should we care?
How do languages die?
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Your comments

Iwona from Poland
I once had an opportunity to attend my cousin's graduate ceremony at University in Cardiff which was held in Welsh. Although the fact that I couldn't understand a word I believe people should do as much as possible to keep it "alive". It is not only a beautiful language but also an important linguistic heritage for any number of people who for sure are very proud of it indeed.

ganainm from Béal Feirste, Éire
Nick P- Dorset, in Ceanntar na hOileáin, an area Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) region of County Galway, 84% (190) of families with primary school children were fluent in Irish in 1994/5. In November 2005, Donncha Ó hÉalaithe wrote in the newspaper Foinse that that figure in the same area had risen to 96% (210) in 2004/5. There are many other areas of the country where the use of Irish in families has actually doubled (within the same period of time). Irish is spoken by 73% of famlies with primary school children in areas of Northwest Donegal, 61% in areas of West Kerry, and 78, 79, 82, 90% in other areas of the Galway Gaeltacht. (And, these are by no means the only areas where Irish remains the language of the majority of homes with primary school children.) I have used these cases to point ou that Irish has a future, a hopefully very bright future. Whilst I do accept that there are many ares within the Gaeltacht that truely are not Irish speaking at all (most of which weren't so 50 years ago), there is still over 100,000 people using the language on a daily basis nation-wide; higher than at any time during the last 40 years.

Nick P- Dorset
In reply to B Sims- I don't think I'm negative at all- quite the opposite I would hope. I'll post something on the Language Expert topic board so we can debate this properly, which I'm always up for. Similarly Paul, and his comments about my comments about the Irish language. See you all soon on the message board. Nick

B Sims, midlands
In response to comments made. Emmett is an English dialect word for ant. Moryon is the Cornish word for ant and moryonenn for ants. Dolly Pentreath was the last monoglot speaker of Cornish, not the last speaker. I can't understand why people who claim to be 'uninterested' in a subject and not have some axe to grind are so negative and do not get their facts straight before commenting.

Nick P from Dorset
Roger Oliver's claim that people still speak Cornish doesn't quite ring true, but if he's right the linguists had better get on down to Cornwall and rewrite the history of the language, which was thought to have died out when Dolly Pentreath passed away in 1777, apart from a few words which have survived in common speech- "emmett"-"ant or tourist", being the best known. The present revival may be very worthy, but is nothing more than sentimentality or nostalgia- even the Cornish language website only puts the number of fluent speakers in the hundreds, and this is simply not enough to ensure any sort of future or relevance for the language. Sorry Cornwall, but English has won. Breton is in a stronger position, in that it continued to be spoken as a first language, and has managed to hang on in spite of not having any legal status until recently, (and even that is a begrudging concession on the part of the French Government), in the face of an overwhelming French onslaught. The Diwan school system is doing its best to promote Breton, but it has to be said that even in areas which until a few generations ago were monoglot Breton, it's now quite rare to hear it spoken. I know many Bretons whose great grandparents spoke it, whose grandparents were bi-lingual, whose parents understood some and now this generation speak only French. The Breton writer Pierre Jakez Helias said something to the affect- "when I was a child we spoke only Breton. It was like a forest, but now only a few trees remain". I find that sad, and moving, expressing a real sense of loss, but the fact is that there are not really enough people who feel passionately that the effort involved in ensuring its survival is worthwhile. I sincerely hope it doesn't die as Cornish has, (unless Roger is right), but it's far from guaranteed.

Karen from Southampton
We are loosing one minority language a fortnight you say? Well I do feel sorry for those who preach and worship minority faiths in Britain, they may be driven out all together. In response to Ray Wards most recent comment about aliens. Considering that different people have different views about the way in which a alien would speak/look etc., surely the aliens themselves would have different views of how we look and talk. It'd only take one of these "Higher life-forms" to compromise and suggest we speak different languages. We are right to save languages such as Cornish and Cymraeg. It shows the heritage of Britain.

Paul, Dun Given
Replying to Nick P. in Dorset: Irish is not spoken by "fewer and fewer people every year". Whilst I agree that many of the 'traditional' strongholds are shrinking, there are more speakers throughout Ireland (and indeed the world with speakers in America, Australia... even Finland) than there have been at any point in the last 100 years.

Phil Reid, Edinburgh
I come from North East Scotland, stronghold of the Doric dialect. I'm immensely proud of my linguistic heritage and it makes up a large part of my identity. While I was at school it was frowned upon to speak Doric but thankfully things have moved on, with somewhat of a revival of the dialect.

Roger Oliver originally from Torquay
"Down" in Cornwall (I have Cornish roots) some fishermen still speak Cornish and can talk to the Breton fishermen in a common language without having to stumble along in French or English as the case may be. Lives have been saved by this ability! I married a Bretonne and our traditions and ways of thinking are much alike - no English/French divide (even though we are both bilingual in those languages too! Those looking for support for the Cornish language revival should perhaps look accross the channel and see what's happening there?

Nick P- Dorset
Languages are in their way a bit like species of animals, 99.9% of which have become extinct since life began, and it wouldn't be a suprise if a similar statistic didn't apply to languages, which come and go, although there's no real way of knowing- they don't leave fossils. Language survival or revival is often more a political issue than anything else. For example Franco's regime in Spain tried to kill off the minority languges- Basque, Catalan, Galician etc, but in modern, liberal Spain they are having a real renaisance. Similarly with Welsh, Latvian, Estonian, Lituanian, Hebrew etc etc. Yet in independent Ireland and in spite of the best efforts of the Irish government for many decades Gaelic is spoken by fewer and fewer people as a first language. The problem for the minority languages is that they are useless in this day and age for communication with the outside world, and we need that to prosper. The Dutch, Scandanavians and other know this and ensure that as many of their people as possible can communicate in English. It's a vast and interesting subject, with no real rules as far as I can see. However reviving Cornish does seem to me a bit daft. It has't been spoken for at least 200 years. Do it by all means, but don't try to pretend that it will be a significant step towards Cornish independence.

Alistair Hughes, Talysarn
The interaction of peoples from various linguistic traditions has enriched the world, the effect of a monoglotic earth would be to stultify this dialectic process and hamper development in all areas of human endeavour.

David Evans from Cardiff
I am about to start studying Spanish in University with the hope of working someday in linguistics. I love communicating with people in their native language(no matter how basic my grasp might be) when on holiday, and it's obvious that people love visitors who make an effort to communicate with them this way. Plus they are always helpful should you make any mistakes. I once had a trilingual conversation in Brittany; I spoke Welsh & French while the (very attractive) young lady spoke to me in Breton & French. But thats another story.

Stuart from London
No doubt Ray Ward is the first person to complain about Americanisms in British English, invading OUR language and making Britain and the world an American world...!! Otherwise, that is the only way he could conceive of the heartache and pain that losing a language can mean to somewhere in that situation.

Katy Lee, Berkshire
Languages are what make us unique and different. If you see the world as it really is, you cannot say that languages dying out is a good thing. It's awful as, with every language lost, thousands of years of culture disappears with it.

Kate from Leeds
Languages are infinately interesting and a source of information about how we evolved as different cultures. All the people of Europe and India are believed to have spoken one language which then developed into all the varying languages of Europe and India. The only exception being Basque - which has no related languages at all!

Megan Cardiff
If Welsh is a dying language why are more and more Welsh schools being built in South Wales? Welsh is a beautiful language and our youth don't feel the need to change it like the english language with silly txt spk!

Derek Shields from High Peak
Like other forms of diversity, I think multiple languages are an enhancement to the world, unlike Ray Ward. But, if we are to reduce the number of languages to one lets make it a sensible phonetic one like Spanish.

Myfanwy Alexander, Cymru
Ray Ward's problem appears to stem from his anxiety about multilingualism, an anxiety almost always only found amonst native speakers of English. Every langauge holds unique concepts: we Welsh can scarcely believe that the English muddle along with only one word for love. Language is a part of how we are, and to suggest that the world would be better if we all spoke one language is as absurd as to suggest that we should all have the same colour eyes. Uniformity is the goal of fascists: let us celebrate our own linguistic culture without denigrating that of others.

Renee from Texas
"If languages are dying at the rate of one a fortnight that's the best news I've heard in a long time, and long may it continue!" That's the most offensive thing I've read in a long time. And people think Americans are self-righteous, ignorant isolationists...

Ray Ward, London
If aliens learned that Earth has thousands of mostly mutually unintelligible forms of communication, causing vast inconvenience and waste of time and resources, and, far from trying to reduce the number, ideally to a single language for all on Earth, we were actually trying to save minority languages like Welsh, they would think we're insane. If languages are dying at the rate of one a fortnight that's the best news I've heard in a long time, and long may it continue!

Mike Mort from Surbiton
This Spring we had a ski holiday in Ortisei in the Dolomites, N.Italy. Although it is described as a German speaking area, the locals had as a first language Ladino, apparently descended from Latin, and surviving (with other derivitives) in the mountain valleys. Some also spoke good German or Italian. The Italian speaking receptionist (from Brescia) could not understand this local language. There was a town hall and a local newspaper which seemed to keep it going.


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