Researchers who work on endangered languages aren’t often able to pinpoint the exact date of a language’s death. Sometimes linguists discover a previously unknown language in the remote corner of the world, and by the time they come back for another field season, it’s already gone. Sometimes linguists show up in places and hear stories of a language that has already been lost; sometimes there are little clues, scraps of writing from an intrepid missionary, words borrowed by a nearby tribe, that testify to something that was once there and is now gone forever. But on rare occasions, we can actually name the day when a language was lost.
On January 26, 2010, a language known as Bo, or Aka-Bo, died. An ancient language of the Andaman Islands, Bo belonged to a family of languages that were thought to have arrived from Africa as many as 70,000 years ago.
The death of a language is the beginning of a tragedy for us all, the tragedy that it is lost to us, we must live in a Bo-less world, that our planet become just slightly less polychromatic. But the death of a language is also, in a way, the end of a tragedy for one person.
This is Boa Senior, who passed away on January 26, 2010. She was the last speaker of her language. Before she died, Boa Sr. was visited by anthropologists and linguists, who researched her language and recorded her story, as best they could. One researcher said that the two of them had become “firm friends.” She was said to have had a warm smile and a contagious laugh.
Still, it must have been a lonely life. Both of her parents had passed away some decades before, leaving Boa Senior without a single other person who spoke her language. She learned some Hindi just so she could get to talk to people. One obituary says that she “was often sighted talking to birds in her language as she maintained that birds were her ancestors and understood her.”
I think that whether we speak Bo or Hindi, Comanche or English, language death affects us. The great British linguist David Crystal once suggested that if we care about languages, maybe we should make official holidays about them, like the green movement and Earth Day. I would like to nominate January 26 as language diversity day, in honor of Boa Senior.