Viva Spanglish!

Rich new languages are being created even as old ones disappear

| March / April 2004

The Manx language was pronounced dead on December 27, 1974, when the last native speaker passed away at age 97 in a fishing village on the Isle of Man called Cregneash. By outliving his generation, Ned Maddrell became famous, symbolizing the lost heritage of this British-governed island in the Irish Sea. In Ned's name, the Manx people have spent the past three decades attempting to inspire a revival, compiling vocabularies and teaching the language in school. But with only 150 semifluent speakers, Manx remains a far cry in popularity from Welsh or even Scots Gaelic. So is it, as the Canadian journalist Mark Abley claims in his 2003 book Spoken Here (Houghton Mifflin), "a test case for rebirth"?

These are the statistics: Of the 6,800 languages spoken today, half will be dead by the end of the century -- one tongue every two weeks. These are the standard villains: capitalism, tourism, television. And these are the typical arguments for resisting language assimilation: A society that loses its language loses its culture; a country that loses its language loses its autonomy; a civilization that loses its languages loses its diversity.