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Vanishing Languages: Uncovering the Secrets of How We Think

Insights from the Chimané people shed light on the power of number words

REUTERS/David Mercado

In February, in the scenic fjords of southern Chile, the world lost not only an elderly woman but also a language. Cristina CalderÓn, a beloved 93-year-old, was the final known native speaker of Yaghan, a language that was once spoken throughout the Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire – at the rugged tip of South America. The disappearance of any language is a tragedy, but the extinction of Yaghan is particularly disheartening because it was an “isolate”: a language that had no connection to any other language in the world.

There are approximately 200 language isolates among the 7,400 languages currently in use, and many of them are on the brink of vanishing, just like Yaghan. It is estimated that 30 percent of all languages will be lost by the end of this century, with isolates, some spoken by only a few hundred people, being especially vulnerable.

However, as their vulnerability increases, so does our understanding that isolates can reveal valuable insights into human communication and cognition. In recent years, they have provided new perspectives on the dynamic relationship between cultural and linguistic evolution, and have supported a contentious hypothesis that connects our perception of reality to the language we use. Lyle Campbell at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa describes each isolate as a “unique window into the mind.”

Furthermore, there is renewed optimism that this research may uncover effective strategies to prevent their extinction. …

Article amended on 28 June 2023

A paragraph was accidentally removed during the upload of this article online. It has now been added in.

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