Does a language ever really die? Surely, we do not yet understand the vitality of Etruscan, Linear A or Harappan. But does ‘dying’ accurately describe more contemporary endangered languages?
‘Dying’ or ‘extinct’ forecasts a dire future that rules out any chance of resurrection. Just last week the Guardian tweeted about a dictionary for Umpithamu, a ‘dying Indigenous Australian language.’ The Australian Government Style Manual prefers ‘sleeping’, acknowledging the possibility of languages awakening once again.
And they surely do. The Dharug language, spoken by First Nations Australians in the Sydney region, was once considered ‘extinct’. The last native speakers are believed to have died in the late 19th Century, while the Australian government aggressively discouraged its use for many decades to come.
Like many of the hundreds of First Nations languages, Dharug has recently been reconstructed and is experiencing a revival at schools and universities across Australia. In 2016, Aboriginal languages were added to the Higher School Certificate curriculum. Indeed, many people even outside of Australia already speak a little bit of Dharug – Bondi, wombat and wallaby are derived from Dharug.
With continued effort, and the correct linguistic framing, Australia’s sleeping languages may see the same success as Māori, Irish, some Native American languages and other examples of fruitful language revitalisation.