Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Death of Boa Sr and the Bo Language

In 1992 a prominent US linguist predicted that by the year 2100, 90% of the world's languages would have ceased to exist. One of those languages died last month when 85-year-old Boa Sr passed away. She was the last speaker of Bo, which at 70,000 years was one of the world's oldest.

According to one count, there are about 470 languages throughout the world that are on their own version of an endangered species list. They are little-known, little-spoken languages on the verge of disappearing as more indigenous people integrate into modern society. Among that number are Lipan Apache with 2 known speakers in the US, Totoro with 4 known speakers in Colombia, and Bikya with just 1 speaker left in Cameroon.

With the death of Boa Sr, the oldest member of the Great Andamanese tribe, there is one less endangered language - it has now become extinct. The language spoken on one of India's Andaman Islands now ceases to be. Languages in the Andamans are thought to originate from Africa, with some estimated to be even 70,000 years old.

BBC radio has a short audio file of what the unique Bo language sounded like. CNN also has a audio of the Bo language with a video of pictures and some of the words translated.

Languages can be brough back from the brink, or even from total extinction, if the will is strong enough and most importantly, if enough of it has been written down.  Hebrew was a dead language at the beginning of the 19th century. It existed as a scholarly written language, but there was no way to know how the words were pronounced. Persistence and will from Israeli Jews brought the language back into everyday use. There has also been a revival of Welsh in the UK and Maori in New Zealand.

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