Can a dead language be revived?

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Worth pondering:

The more languages we have, the better we can understand the world

The vanishing Aleut language and the future of Russia’s linguistic diversity

3:50 am, October 25, 2022
Source: Meduza

Interview by Anna Smirnova. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.

Is it possible for a recently dead language like Manchu, which was politically powerful for centuries and had millions of speakers, to be brought back to life?  I think definitely yes, if there's a will to revive it, especially if it has close living relative with tens of thousands of speakers, such as Sibe / Xibe, there's no reason why it cannot be done

In early October, an 86-year-old man named Gennady Yakovlev died in the village of Nikolskoye on Russia’s Bering Island. Subsequent news reports referred to him as the last native speaker of the Aleut language — and many proclaimed that the language had died along with him. Meduza spoke to Evgeny Golovko, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Linguistic Studies, about the history of the Aleut language, why languages disappear, and whether the Aleut language really died along with Yakovlev.

For the greater part of the 20th century, the language spoken by Russia's indigenous Aleut people had two dialects: Bering Aleut and Medny Aleut. The dialects' names came from the islands where they were spoken.

While Bering Aleut was effectively identical to the Aleut language spoken on Alaska’s Atka Island in the U.S., “Medny Aleut was characterized by its mixedness,” linguist Evgeny Golovko told Meduza. “[…] Medny Aleut is a combination of both one of the old dialects of the Aleut language that disappeared shortly after the Second World War and Russian.”

Historically, the Aleut language didn’t have an alphabet. And while spoken-only languages are no less complex than languages with writing systems, the lack of historical documents has hindered linguists’ ability to study Aleut's origins. But despite not graduating from high school, Yakovlev didn’t let the lack of a writing system get in the way of his mission to preserve his native tongue.

“[He came up] with an Aleut alphabet himself,” said Golovko. “Creating an alphabet is a huge intellectual achievement. How do you indicate that a sound is a voiceless sonorant, which doesn’t exist in Russian? Yakovlev created a way: he used the Russia letters as a base and added special signs, tails, and rods — so-called diacritics.”

Golovko told Meduza that while Gennady Yakovlev’s death is a huge blow to the Aleut people and the linguistic community, it doesn’t necessarily mean the death of the language. For one thing, there’s actually one more native Aleut speaker left: 82-year-old Lidia Fedoseyeva. And because she’s a woman and gender roles are a significant part of Aleut culture, her experience of life on Bering Island has been markedly different from Yakovlev’s.

“[Yakovlev] was a hunter. He spent a lot of time roaming around the island; he knew what every rock was called, where every wind blew, and where which type of moss grew. Lidia, [on the other hand,] spends a lot of time at home; she knows how to cook everything, what different kinds of food are called. Unfortunately, she’s the last person who can tell us about all of these things in the Aleut language.”

The article goes into considerable detail about language disappearance in Russia and in general.  Its conclusion is instructive:

While it’s not impossible for a language that's no longer used in daily life to be “completely resurrected,” Golovko told Meduza, it is difficult. In fact, he said, there’s really only ever been one example: Hebrew.

“It used to only be used in liturgical settings, then it spread into all […] spheres: official paperwork, education, domestic life, pronouncements of love, poetry,” he said. “That happened because the language was given every opportunity; the state of Israel appeared, and [Hebrew] was ‘designated’ the state language. [It’s as if] it were just ‘thrown out’ and told, ‘Now live!’”

While other language revival initiatives have been “relatively successful," such as the ones in Hawaii and Ireland, said Golovko, the languages in those places haven’t made the full return to all parts of daily life that Hebrew has in Israel. That suggests that Aleut revivalists have an uphill battle ahead.

“But I can assure you if […] an Aleut state were ‘organized’ tomorrow, Aleut language would immediately come back to life,” said Golovko. “Any language can be revived, but you have to have the right conditions for it.”

Even Taiwanese and Cantonese, which still have millions of speakers, had better take care, lest their languages go the way of Aleut and Manchu (Shanghainese is already in serious danger of disappearing).  As for Ainu, it's still a tossup, but preemptive steps need to be taken to continue the recent, gradual reversal of the decline that had been ongoing for more than a millennium.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Ellie Kesselman said,

    November 10, 2022 @ 8:09 am

    Hebrew is a good example of a language that has been 'resurrected' from prayer usage to everyday life, with the qualification that Yiddish kept it alive for part of that time.

    Latin is a language that *could* be resurrected! It was spoken, written, and read in many parts of the Roman Empire, and certainly in the Latium plain. It has been preserved in liturgical and literary contexts. Other than being difficult to learn, it could be quite easily brought back to life!

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 10, 2022 @ 10:28 am

    Sanskrit, unless you say that it never became a dead language

    "Sanskrit resurgent" (8/13/14)

    "Spoken Sanskrit" (1/9/16)

  3. liuyao said,

    November 11, 2022 @ 6:00 am

    There is a real possibility that a so-called Large Language Model can learn and even "master" a dead language, and start teaching humans by holding (verbal) conversations with us.

  4. Philip Anderson said,

    November 12, 2022 @ 3:51 am

    There were special circumstances that led to Hebrew being successfully established as the government and community language in Israel: the determination of the country’s founders combined with every institution being created from scratch, new communities and the absence of a shared language amongst new arrivals.
    When Ireland gained independence, Irish became the official language, but although it is learnt in schools it has not become the community language outside its traditional area (and I suspect among a section of the urban middle class); English is still dominant.
    It’s the same in Wales, with its devolved government: increased status and a core subject in schools, but still not widespread, and subject to constant opposition and negative remarks, both inside and outside Wales.
    So the creation of a separate state is no guarantee for the health of a language, even when the language is a driving force for advocates of independence; but it can improve status and resources.

  5. M said,

    November 12, 2022 @ 6:16 am

    The myth that Hebrew “died” and was later “revived” or "resurrected" is as widespread as it is erroneous. Hebrew was never revived or resurrected because it never died.

    Rather, it was revernacularized and renativized – and before the establishment of the State of Israel.

    Some details here (among other publications by other researchers):

    Gold, David L. 1989. “A Sketch of the Linguistic Situation in Israel Today.” Language in Society. Vol. 18. No. 3. Pp. 361-388.

    Rather, it was revernacularized and renativized — and before the establishment of the State of Israel.

    Some det

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 12, 2022 @ 7:56 am

    From Peter Golden:

    Languages can be revived. Hebrew, of course, is the obvious case. It should be borne in mind that it remained not only as a liturgical language, but also as a written means of communication among Jewish groups across Eurasia. There were those who were able to speak it as well (probably a distinct minority), as any number of sources attest. Hebrew died out in Ancient Israel in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE. It was replaced by Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the Middle East before the advent of Arabic as the language of a politically dominant group. Some accounts say that spoken Hebrew continued in the Galilee in the 1st century BCE, but I claim no special knowledge here – and that may be inaccurate. Jesus, it seems to be the common opinion, spoke Aramaic and undoubtedly read Hebrew. Probably knew some Koine Greek.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 12, 2022 @ 11:15 am

    FWIW, wikipedia claims that the last native speaker of the "Bering Dialect" of Aleut was a lady named Vera Timoshenko who died on March 7, 2021 at the age of 93, but maybe that was premature. Or maybe the people referenced here spoke a different dialect (the Soviets apparently consolidated some previously geographically separate Aleut populations with different dialects onto a single island). There has BTW been a reasonably standard way of writing Aleut in Cyrillic ever since it was developed by Russian missionaries in the early 19th century. If the fellow profiled here had to make up his own orthography it was because the Communists had destroyed or obscured the work of the past in the territory they controlled.

    In any event, the Aleut dialects spoken on U.S. territory are not yet all extinct although they are certainly endangered.

  8. January First-of-May said,

    November 15, 2022 @ 11:45 am

    Manx comes to mind as an example of a language that had been (briefly) extinct but is now vulnerable at most due to an ongoing active revival program. Wampanoag is another, I think. It's not entirely out of the question that Aleut would some day go in the same direction.

    Hebrew, of course, always had sufficiently large active-speaker communities that it's debatable whether it had ever actually died. Latin and Sanskrit are in the same situation, though to the best of my knowledge there is no major Latin revival movement.
    Hawai'ian and (especially) Irish had never even reached the "extinct in the wild" point, though IIRC for Hawai'ian it was close a few times.

    I wonder if any conlangs/auxlangs had been long forgotten and then learned anew by a new community from original descriptions…

  9. Anya K said,

    November 16, 2022 @ 1:25 pm

    There was a story on PBS NewsHour just a few days ago about the effort to revive Kodiak Alutiiq:

  10. Philip Anderson said,

    November 19, 2022 @ 6:07 pm

    Perhaps there’s another dying language that might need reviving :-)

  11. Yerushalmi said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 3:29 am

    “It used to only be used in liturgical settings, then it spread into all […] spheres: official paperwork, education, domestic life, pronouncements of love, poetry,” he said. “That happened because the language was given every opportunity; the state of Israel appeared, and [Hebrew] was ‘designated’ the state language. [It’s as if] it were just ‘thrown out’ and told, ‘Now live!’”

    As M said, this is incorrect; the revitalization of Hebrew predated the State of Israel by a couple of decades. If anything, I'd guess there is causality in the other direction: bringing their common language back to the forefront probably contributed to the disparate Jewish communities' sense of common purpose.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    November 26, 2022 @ 5:50 pm

    Rather, it was revernacularized and renativized –

    Uh, exactly. The term "dead language" is most often used to mean "nobody's native language anymore", and Hebrew fulfilled that definition for a very long time.

    with the qualification that Yiddish kept it alive for part of that time

    How so? It contains a number of Hebrew words – that's all.

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