The page "List of languages by time of extinction" is a sad wonder.
Landing of William Penn on "American" soil, in Delaware Bay in 1682, by Jean-Léon Gérôme Ferris (1863-1930), one of 78 paintings from his series The Pageant of a Nation. Note that the painter messed up with his representation of "Indians": those in the painting look more like the inhabitants of the Great Plains, while Penn and his Quakers met the Lenape, who were not at all similar in appearance [Note by Tlaxcala]
This morning, I'd like to express my love for a Wikipedia page. It's called the “List of languages by time of extinction”. Basically, this is a page that lists the languages that have disappeared; the most recently departed being found at the top of the list. If you visit it today, you will see that the last language that disappeared was the Wichita language, on August 30th, which died with the death of a lady named Doris MacLemore.
Because obviously, languages disappear when their last speaker dies. And among the 6,000 languages that UNESCO considers endangered, many of them are now spoken by only a few people. And so, despite the initiatives put in place to preserve them, or at least to document them, languages are dying all the time, along with the last speaker of the language. Last February, the Wikipedia page says it was the turn of Nuchatlaht, a dialect of Nuu-chah-nulth, itself belonging to the family of Wakashan, which was only spoken by one inhabitant of British Columbia by the name of Alban Michael. And we can notice that there are bad years for languages. The page notes for example that around 2009 (the dating is a little vague) the following disappeared: 3 dialects of the Andamanese language in India, Nyaweigi in Australia, 2 Tupi dialects in Brazil, Aribwatsa in Papua New Guinea, Lelak in Malaysia, and Papora-Hoanya in Taiwan.
You could probably say that it is a somewhat morbid pastime to observe the disappearance of a language which is also the disappearance of a culture, a way of describing and representing the world. But not at all.
First, because this extraordinary - and relatively overlooked - variety of all the languages that disappear, reminds us of all those which are still spoken. Since I only learn that a language ever existed through reading of its death, I think of all those I do not know, and it makes me happy (interesting logic, I know...). And then, because this page - even if it is without doubt incomplete and ignores the complex question of knowing what is a language, what differentiates it from a dialect etc. - allows you to acquire a lot of knowledge that perhaps won’t make you shine at posh dinner parties, unless you dine with Claude Hagège, and want to casually bring up useless titbits such as: what is the latest language to have disappeared in France? Do you know? No? Well, it was a Basque dialect, in 1991. I like this page because one notes how quickly the Native American languages are disappearing (there may be a central effect that means that the disappearance of a Native American language is easier to list than that of a Hmong tribe), but in any case, today we are observing it again, the extermination of the Indians - a blind spot in the US-American memory - that continues to produce its effects.
But above all, I love this page, because sometimes the last speaker is the subject of a Wikipedia page. It's extraordinary. Where other than Wikipedia can you find a picture of an old lady named Hazel Sampson, posing in the sun with a hat and a sweat jacket, like any old US-American lady, except she died aged one hundred and three in Washington and was the last human to speak Kallam, language of the Kallam tribe?
Or the photo of Mrs. Boa Sr, born and died in India, who escaped the epidemic brought by the British that decimated her tribe, survived the Japanese occupation during the second world war, then the 2004 earthquake, and who died in 2010, taking with her the Aka Bo language that she was the last to speak.
And the wonderful thing is that sometimes, you can listen to these lost languages. The internet, so frequently condemned for imposing dominant languages, which is not untrue, transforms into a kind of Babel, where, any time you want to listen to them, you can revive dead languages, almost dead languages, languages that don't exist in writing, as well as the lives of those who speak or have spoken them. Let us listen to a few sentences of Wichita, a language from Oklahoma which since August 30, exists only in the memory of networks.