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Interesting Etymologies 39 : Dead Languages

Updated: Jan 29, 2022

"Hello again Word Lovers!" We have looked at words that have come to English from very far flung roots and some of the languages they have travelled through no longer exist. If we exclude Latin, Greek and Hebrew from our considerations, how many words exist in English that have come from dead languages and another question to consider, how does a language die?

A list of endangered languages as recognised by UNESCO includes Yiddish, Scots, Manx and Romani. There are languages listed with speakers in the single digits. Apiaka, in Brazil, is a recently extinct language after the last known fluent heritage speaker, Juara Mato Grosso, died in April 2011. Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez were the last speakers of Ayapaneco but to the consternation of academics and linguists refused to speak to each other. (Ed - This has been contested as false. The accusation is that the pair cooked up the feud to help build awareness of the threat to languages and there are at least a dozen more fluent speakers in the Mexican rural village. Either way, the feud was set aside in 2014 to help protect the language. Since recording this episode Manuel Segovia passed away in 2021.)

Some languages have a formal death date. One such language was the Klallam native American tongue which died on February 4, 2014, when the last speaker, Hazel Sampson, passed away.

Investigating dead languages often reveals strange connections and opens up reinterpretation of our history.

Yeniseian, a family of languages spoken by the people in the Yenisei river valley in central Siberia. It was not related to neighbouring languages but showed potential connections to north American languages such as Navajo.

There are languages that still exist, but are known as language isolates. They are in a healthy state but have no connection to the languages around them. There are six such isolates in Africa, eight in Asia, which includes Korean and Japanese. The most famous example is perhaps in the north of Spain, the Basque language. Continual study means we have to reappraise our understanding of language isolates. Finnish, once believed to be an isolate is now understood to have a root in regional groups. Check out Charly's explanation for more information.

Old English or Middle English is now considered a dead language and Gothic, one of the only eastern European languages we know anything about, merely because it was written. Basque is the only descendant of the Vasconic languages. It was almost certainly spoken before the arrival of Indo-European languages. Before the Romans came to the Iberian peninsula the language spoken is given the name Aquitanian. Likewise a rich tapestry of various languages have vanished from Italy after the dominance of Latin. They are given the name Proto-Italic but there were various tribes. One of the most dominant was the Etruscans and their language Etruscan.

Languages of the British Isles

The lost languages of Britain are legion. In the Britonic and Neo Britonic grouping we have Welsh, Cumbric, Cornish, Breton and Pictish. Only Welsh and Breton survive. Cumbric was spoken in the North, then known as Hen Ogledd and emerged from Welsh. The name survives in the English county Cumbria and the region Cumberland and these bear strong similarity to the Welsh word for Wales, Cymru. The tribe was known as the "Cumbroges", the "compatriots".

Pictish was subsumed into Gaelic. Galwegian Gaelic is an extinct dialect that was spoken in the southwest of Scotland. It was believed to be a mix between Scandinavian and Gaelic. This gives us the name Galloway, the region of Scotland.

Middle English emigrated to Ireland and an extinct Anglic language was once spoken in various places including Wexford. Fingallian was spoken in Fingal, Ireland. An offshoot of Middle English brought to Ireland during the Norman invasion.

Norn, a Germanic language spoken in the Northern Isles died in the 17th Century.

All these languages have probably passed words into other languages that have made it into modern tongue.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

Until now.

This is the story of how ‘Nobody’ Skip DeLirio, with the cards finally all dealt in his favour, still managed to fuck it up. History will only take you so far. The rest is make-believe.

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