Language Death by Speaker Rejection—A Few Case Studies
by William Carlos Williams Carloses Williamses
X. Quizzit Korps Center for Advanced Collaborative Studies
Much recent work has focused on the death of languages worldwide. Such sad events are almost invariably attributed to a conscious decision by the speaking population to reject their language in favor of some more prestigious tongue, often in pursuit of the opportunities for education and economic advancement that the prestigious language seems to offer.
In this paper, I will employ several case studies to show that another mechanism is often at work in language death: namely, that some languages reject their speakers, rather than the other way around. That is to say, in some cases languages die not because people choose to stop speaking them, but because the language itself chooses not to allow anyone to speak it.
Case study 1: The Pirlipat Language
Preliminary evidence suggests that the Pirlipat language was a hard nut for non-native speakers to crack, but that its original speaking population managed, somehow, to achieve a fluency that bordered on the magical. However, at some point (probably just before records began to be kept) Pirlipat began to refuse to grant access to its semantic core, such that infant and toddler speakers could envision only gigantic mice on exposure to over 50% of the language’s vocabulary. The situation worsened steadily until no one could speak or hear the language without horrific nightmares, and its use vanished. The last known speaker, C. E. Drosselmeier, died of an overdose of sugar dolls after a sleepless night in December 1816.
Case study 2: The Kay Language
The population of Enn in the Eks province woke up one morning to discover that, suddenly and without explanation, they appeared to be fluent speakers of the Kay language. Speakers took to the streets, a bit dazed, but had trouble communicating with one another, for though they were fluent, they didn’t understand why they were fluent, and there was no one who was able to answer any of their questions. Speakers had a vague memory of speaking another language fluently at some time in the past, but couldn’t remember what it was, or how to speak it. After many months of struggle—and just when they appeared to be on the verge of mastering their new tongue—the Kay language evolved a new conjugation system, leaving speakers hopelessly confused. Records show that speakers were attempting yet again to master their new language (never quite getting it right) right up to the point where all available documents break off mid-sentence.
Case Study 3: The Jæ Language Family
In an doubly unusual case, two related language of the Jæ family, Kass and Kschitt, both rejected their speakers. The mechanisms were similar, but decidedly distinct. Speakers of Kass found the language so abrasive-sounding that foreigners who did not speak the language would accuse them of verbally attacking and abusing visitors, as well as each other. Even native speakers of Kass found their own language so grating that they could barely stand to speak it, or listen to it. On the other hand, the intonation patterns of Kschitt were such that they made every speaker sound like a lazy, apathetic good-for-nothing. Non-Kschitt construction crew foremen are reported to have fired their most productive workers for shirking work after overhearing them speak Kschitt during their lunch break. The Snutis Nüüt, neighbors of both the Kass and the Kschitt, had, until both languages died out in the 1990s, two types of common colloquialisms, exemplified here: “You are so mean to me! Don’t be such a Jæ Kass!” and “You are an idiot! You sound like you know Jæ Kschitt!”
Case Study 4: The ʃalō Language
Approximately one hundred years ago, the ʃalō language began to willfully grammaticalize an unusual cluster of features, requiring explicit marking for wealth, appearance, and social status on all participants. A kind of semantic bleaching of mediocrity followed, with affixes for “reasonably attractive”, “financially comfortable”, “well-liked by peers”, and similar losing meaning. Only the extreme ends of the continua are now available, and speakers must choose between the likes of “movie star good looks” and “ugly as a mangy dog”, “has more money than Bernie Madoff (pre 2009)” and “less money than Bernie Madoff (post 2009)”, and “worshiped by all” and “social pariah”. As a result, only the most affluent, attractive, and socially adept speakers continue to use the language. These beautiful, wealthy, high status ʃalō people are now unable to find anyone to cook their meals, remove their garbage, or unclog their toilets. Having no skills of their own, they are unable to fend for themselves, and the language is on the brink of extinction.
Case Study 5: The Nōt Utai Murz Language
Even minority language speakers who are committed to their native tongues often make concessions to the practicality of learning other, more widely spoken languages. Not so the speakers of Nōt Utai Murz, who have a reputation for being particularly poor L2 learners. Recent fMRI studies have demonstrated that, in Nōt Utai Murz speakers, surges in electrical activity in various regions of the brain associated with L1 competence create localized mini-seizures in L2 areas of the brain, preventing the acquisition of new vocabulary and other grammatical patterns. It seems that Nōt Utai Murz is a jealous language, and will admit no others. A small number of outsiders have learned Nōt Utai Murz, though it seems to damage any proficiency they have in languages other than their native language(s). The entire community of Nōt Utai Murz has elected to abandon the language. They have brought in a small army of outsiders to learn Nōt Utai Murz; all are required to be monolingual so as not to damage any other L2 languages they may have acquired. Going forward, all Nōt Utai Murz children will be raised as monolingual English speakers, with the Nōt Utai Murz-learning outsiders to be employed as nanny/translators for parents and grandparents.
[Note: The Linguist General of the United States has warned US citizens against accepting such nanny/translator positions with the Nōt Utai Murz, as the effects of long-term exposure to the language are not well understood. —Eds.]
More to come...