LAST February, amid the fjords of southern Chile, an elderly woman died – and a language fell silent. Cristina CalderÓn, a much-loved 93-year-old, was the last known native speaker of Yaghan, which could at one time be heard across the Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire – that forms the jagged tip of South America. The loss of any tongue is a tragedy, but Yaghan’s extinction will be felt particularly keenly because this was no ordinary language. It was an “isolate”: a language utterly distinct from those used anywhere else in the world.
Language isolates comprise about 200 of the estimated 7400 languages in use today and many are dangerously close to following Yaghan into oblivion. Estimates suggest that 30 per cent of all languages will have vanished by the end of the century. Isolates – some used by just a few hundred people – are particularly vulnerable.
But as their vulnerability has risen, so has an awareness that isolates can tell us a lot about human communication and cognition. In the past few years alone, they have offered us fresh insight into the interplay between cultural and linguistic evolution and provided support for a controversial hypothesis that links our understanding of reality with the language we use. “Each of these isolates is a… whole different window on the mind,” says Lyle Campbell at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.
What’s more, there is new hope that the research might also identify better strategies to help us save them from extinction. …