How Do You Learn a Dead Language?

If you can’t find a word, just borrow one …

Chief Marie Smith Jones

Last week, Chief Marie Smith Jones, the only remaining native speaker of the Eyak language, died in her home in Anchorage, Alaska. Chief Jones’ death makes Eyak—part of the Athabascan family of languages—the first known native Alaskan tongue to go extinct. Linguists fear that 19 more will soon follow the same fate. Fortunately, starting in 1961, Chief Jones and five other native-speaking Eyaks worked with Michael Krauss, a linguist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, to document Eyak in case future generations want to revive it. How would you go about learning a language that nobody speaks?

It depends. A well-documented language would have a dictionary, grammar book, a body of literature (such as folk tales or religious texts), and, in some cases, videos and recordings that a dedicated student could learn from. Eyak, for example, has all of these. Ideally, the grammar book and dictionary would spell out the sounds of the vowels (and tone, if there is any). If there isn’t good documentation, linguists must reconstruct the language using whatever written stories or religious texts remain, and then borrow words, grammatical structures, and pronunciation from closely related languages, patching together their best guess at what they think the language sounded like.

In some cases, a language that’s classified as “extinct” is still spoken in certain contexts. Latin, for example, is considered extinct, or dead, but is taught in schools and used in religious ceremonies. A language is generally considered extinct if it’s no longer used in daily conversation. To be a living—or native—language, people must use it as a primary means of communication.

For almost 2,000 years Hebrew was extinct, but Jews around the world continued to use it daily in a limited capacity in prayer, religious ceremonies, and writing. The rise of Jewish nationalism in the 19th century spawned the movement to revive Hebrew as a native language. Because no Hebrew dictionary or grammar books existed (the only written documentation was the Old Testament and a few other pieces of literature), people had to borrow words from other languages or create new ones to fill in gaps in the ancient Hebrew. Proponents of reviving Hebrew realized that the health of a language depends on children speaking it. In the 1890s, parents in Palestine started using Hebrew exclusively at home and sending their children to schools that used only Hebrew. By the early 1900s, couples that had attended these schools started to marry, and their children became native Hebrew speakers.

Sometimes linguists must borrow liberally from a family of languages. Cornish, the language of Cornwall, England, went extinct in the 18th century. It was revived starting in the 1920s using only a collection of Cornish passion plays and words and pronunciation borrowed from Breton and Welsh—two closely related Celtic languages. A few hundred people now speak Cornish, and some children are raised with it as a first language. When filming The New World, a movie about the founding of Jamestown, Va., director Terrence Malick hired a linguist to recreate Virginia Algonquian, which had died nearly 200 years ago. Using a skimpy 550-word vocabulary that settlers had recorded, and borrowing heavily from other Algonquian languages, the linguist recreated enough of the Virginia Algonquian for the actors to perform.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.