Home > 7. How to Eat an Essay > Extinctions


The thought of language extinction can bring frightening images to mind: whole populations defeated, oppressed, and eventually destroyed or driven into exile, taking their words with them. But not all language extinctions happen in such a violent way, and some languages survive and reappear again in everyday speech despite intense persecution (e.g., Hebrew). What seems to be most important to language survival is the degree to which a language is necessary to conducting daily business. Next most important is whether the power elite speaks it. Finally, the use of a language in liturgy can preserve it–once again, Hebrew is an example, as are Latin, Old Church Slavonic, and Sanskrit.

When a language does disappear in speech, its written record can preserve important stories, and, above all, the history of the language’s community.


Here are some extinct languages you may not have heard of (I hadn’t–and note that all are European), accompanied by stories and history:

1) Shaudit. A Romance language spoken by Jewish people living in southern France from at least the 10th century A.D. It is unclear whether Shaudit developed from Judeo-Latin, evolved independently after Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, or owes it origins to the Jewish exegetical school at Narbonne. Shaudit declined rapidly during the Inquisition, and the last known speaker, Arman Lunel, died in 1977.

2) Sicel. Spoken by the Sicels, one of the three pre-Latin and -Punic tribes of Sicily. The language is of Indo-European origin, and scholars think that they arrived in Sicily after 1000 B.C. and introduced the use of iron to the island. The Odyssey mentions them, and Thucydides notes that they may originally have inhabited central Italy. After the arrival of Greek colonists in Sicily, the Sicel tribe began to decline, and sometime after 400 B.C. the language died out.

3) Cumbric. A Celtic language spoken in Hen Ogleth, the Old North of England and southern Scotland. Associated with the Kingdom of Strathclyde, Cumbric died out in the 12th century A.D. By the way, speakers of Cumbric were P-Celts.

4) Norn. A north German language spoken in the Shetland Islands and Caithness. After the Shetlands were transferred from Norway to Scotland in the 14th century, the language began to die out. Walter Sutherland, from Shaw in Unst, was possibly Norn’s last speaker. He died in 1850.

5) Auregnais. A dialect of Norman spoken on Alderney, one of the English Channel Islands. By 1880, the local children has stopped speaking it among themselves. Population movement and official neglect have been cited as reasons for the language’s extinction.

6) Tartessian. A language spoken in the southwestern Iberian peninsula (Spain) before the Romans secured the peninsula and Latin became its common language. Tartessian, which was spoken from about the 7th century B.C. to the 1st century A.D., is an unclassified language and one of the paleohispanic languages.

7) Meyra. Merya was spoken be the Merya tribe, an important pre-Slavic community centered around Lake Nero near Yaroslavl in northwest Russia. Merya was a Uralic language, related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian, and Meryan religious sites, such as sacred stones and groves, continued in use for feasts much longer than other such sites in the region. It is believed that the Slavs peacefully assimilated the Merya about 1000 A.D., and Yaroslav the Wise founded Yaroslavl on the site of a Meryan shrine where a sacred bear was kept.

8) Galindan. A little known language, spoken in Poland until the 14th century, Galindan was a member of the Baltic language group,  and thus related to Lithuanian, Latvian, and the extinct language Old Prussian. The Galindans were known to Ptolemy, and medieval Russians have left a written reference to them. No inscriptions in Galindan are known. Possibly, like their neighbors, the Old Prussians, the Galindans were warlike and very difficult to convert.

9) Messapian. Few inscriptions written in Messapian have survived, making its study and classification difficult. What is known is that this language was spoken in southeastern Italy (Apulia) and died out about the 1st century B.C. If this language belongs to the Illyrian language group, as some scholars believe, its inscriptions would be the only writing found so far for this language group. Some Greek mythographers noted that the ancestor of the Messapian-speaking tribes was the son of Dedalus.

10) Anglo-Norman. The variety of Old Norman spoken by the English court after William the Conqueror deposed the House of Wessex. This language, one of the northern French dialects (or langues d’oil), is the missing link between continental French and the many words that found their way into English after the Norman Conquest. For instance, chou-caboge-cabbage. And the AN “captain” retained the /k/ sound not found in French. So it turns out that the educated English elite were trilingual in medieval times, speaking AN, Latin, and English. After English replaced AN as the language of law and in sessions of Parliament in the mid-14th century, the use of Anglo-Norman dwindled away–English (in its radically altered Middle English form) had remained the language of commerce and the common people. But the most colloquial of the many AN dialects contributed to the development of early Modern English (in general use by 1500) to such an extent that it might be truer to say that they were absorbed into everyday English usage. Readers should nevertheless note: modern English remains a Germanic language.


RT’s Related Posts: 1) The Greek Alphabets–An Independent Tradition? 2) Four Phases of Learning a Language


Photo: Etruscan Gold Pendant, WikiCmns, Public Domain.

  1. April 15, 2011 at 4:28 am

    I have always found language study facinating!

    • April 16, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      aaron: I also am finding this delving into language rewarding… thx for stopping by! RT

  2. aubrey
    April 18, 2011 at 1:36 am

    Fascinating. The study of language is also the study of art, and the study of history – and can present an understanding of populations long gone.

    • April 20, 2011 at 6:19 pm

      aubrey: & as my search for my mother’s family has been teaching, we have much to learn from fin-de-siecle europe and america–which was in some respects far braver and far more radical than we are… RT

  1. October 7, 2013 at 6:03 am

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