Language is an integral part of civilization. Whether is written or oral, communication provides us with a way of making sense of the world.
That’s why it’s so unsettling when languages die out: they often take their cultures with them. While linguists and historians work to preserve these linguistic relics, those without direct ties to modern forms of communication are fading away.
Join us as we uncover the buried histories of these dead and dying languages.
Rongorongo Glyphs of Easter Island
When linguists uncovered glyphs written on wooden tablets on Easter Island, they weren’t entirely sure what to think of the new discovery. Analyzing the glyphs proved an arduous feat, given that the writing style of the rongorongo glyphs bears no resemblance to any existing language.
Upon their first encounter with the Spaniards in the 1770s, the indigenous Easter Islanders were asked to sign written accounts of their annexation. Before meeting the Europeans, linguist Dr. Steven Roger Fischer says, the Rapanui people of Easter Island produced no other known form of writing.
Eugène Eyraud, the first non-indigenous resident of Easter Island, was the first person to see the rongorongo glyphs in 1864. He noted that the script, which seemed to be embedded with sacred significance, was inscribed on wooden tablets in every island resident’s home. The language is believed to combine ideographs with a phonetic alphabet, Fischer even suggested the tablets contained creation chants.
Through making the rongorongo glyphs into a Rosetta Stone of sorts (by inscribing a staff with the glyph text) Fischer observed patterns of the language—namely that a phallic symbol was included at the beginning of each section. He concluded this to mean “copulated with.” A line of rongorongo was translated to mean “All the birds copulated with the fish: there issued forth the sun,” which Fischer said is similar to an 1886 Easter Island procreation chant.
Although Eyraud claimed to have cracked the code, his translation is contested. The meaning of the Rongorongo glyphs remain unknown to this day. Even when the glyphs were created, who they were for, and what purpose they served remains a mystery.
The Coptic language is the final form of the Ancient Egyptian language used in the days of the pharaohs. Developed around 300 C.E. in Egypt and spoken commonly until around 1200 C.E., it is safe to say that modern Coptic is an endangered language–though some Egyptians insist it isn’t.
Coptic is written using a mix of the Greek alphabet and some Demotic signs, which were a cursive form of hieroglyphics adopted in 650 B.C.E. It was the primary language of the Copts, Egypt’s Christian population. After the, at the time, predominantly Christian Egypt was conquered by Arabic-speaking Muslims in 7th century C.E., Arabic slowly began to replace Coptic as Egypt’s principal language.
The Egyptian language is the longest surviving written language in the world, having been written and spoken for over 3,500 years, making it also one of the oldest. Over thousands of years and through Egypt’s many kingdoms and periods, the Egyptian language constantly evolved: the language had five phases in total with Coptic being the fifth and final stage.
It is believed that the majority of Egyptians stopped speaking Coptic between the 11th and 16th centuries. Although Coptic is rarely spoken in its native country today, it is not yet obsolete. In modern Egypt, Coptic clergy still use the language for ceremonial purposes.
Unknown Lost Human Language Preserved by Parrots
Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt made many a voyage in the early 19th century–namely to Latin America on commission by the Spanish monarchy.
On July 6, 1799, Humboldt reached the Venezuelan port of Cumana, which was full of phenomena both zoological and ecological. In 1800, during his time in Venezuela, Humboldt purportedly discovered a parrot that echoed the words of her former owner—in a lost language. This parrot was in the hands of a tribe that had annihilated the Ature tribe, from which the parrot’s original owner hailed.
While in Venezuela, Humboldt stayed with an indigenous Carib tribe near the Maypures village–a tribe who owned many speaking parrots. Humboldt noticed that one parrot sounded different from the rest. He questioned the bird's hosts, who informed him that the parrot had previously belonged to an opposing tribe, the Ature. The Caribs displaced the Ature from their land, leaving the tribe and its culture for dead. It turns out that this odd parrot was the only creature alive who spoke the lost Ature language.
Humboldt logged the words the parrot spoke, saving the language from extinction. In 1997, as part of an ongoing art installation, two parrots were trained to speak the lost language Humboldt recorded. While this story of a language saved by parrots is often dismissed as legend, this entry from Humboldt’s travel journal, Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, frames the account as truth:
A tradition circulates among the Guahibos, that the warlike Atures [another local tribe], pursued by the Caribs, escaped to the rocks that rise in the middle of the Great Cataracts; and there that nation, heretofore so numerous, became gradually extinct, as well as its language. The last families of the Atures still existed in 1767 … At the period of our voyage, an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants said—and the fact is worthy of observation—that they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures.
Since its discovery, the Indus script has been the subject of much debate: Some scholars argue that it’s a language, and others that it’s merely a compilation of various symbols.
This script dates back to a four-thousand-year-old civilization in the Indus Valley, which is now eastern Pakistan and northwest India. From around 2600 B.C.E. to 1900 B.C.E., the Indus civilization prospered at a level that made it comparable to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The civilization eventually vanished and remained buried until it was rediscovered by British and Indian archaeologists in the 1920s.
With the aid of the Rosetta Stone, the script of the Indus civilization was partly decoded. The Indus script is fairly similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs, making the application of the Rosetta Stone possible.
Human analysis fell short in a few areas, so computer scientist Rajesh Rao of the University of Washington decided to run multiple languages through a computer program to analyze their patterns. He then input the Indus script, hoping to find analogous patterns. Computer algorithms weren’t able to translate the language wholly, but managed to find several patterns. The patterns Rao was looking for likely would have related to the frequency of words that are repeated at specific intervals and place names.
While there is no widely agreed-upon decipherment of the Indus script, we can only hope that with future archeological discoveries in Pakistan, one will be unearthed soon.
Featured photo of fifth–sixth century Coptic liturgic inscription: Wikimedia Commons