Final speakers

Around the world today, several languages have just one native speaker left. When they die, their language dies with them.

Cristina Calderón
Víctor Alejandro Correa Rueda [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve already written about Ishi, the last speaker of the Yahi language, who died in 1916, but there are many documented cases of languages dying out, or that are about to die.

Take Cristina Calderón, for example. She is the last native speaker of Yaghan, a language formerly spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of the islands around Tiera Del Fuego (yup, right around the False Cape Horn). They’ve been there for thousands of years – in fact, three Yaghan rode with Charles Darwin on the Beagle.

But, as is so often the way, a combination of diseases introduced by Europeans and competition for food and resources (with Europeans) reduced the number of Yaghan and thus the number of native speakers. Since her sister-in-law died in 2005, Cristina is the only speaker left, and when she dies the language may well pass on with her.

Cristina has many relatives who could learn the language from her, and she has compiled a dictionary, songbook, and book of stories in Yaghan so we’ll always have a record of the language. There are plans to create a “language nest” (a topic that I’ll write about later) for the language, to potentially revitalise it. But once there are no longer speakers who grew up with a language as their first tongue, it’s pretty much doomed.


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