Stages of Language Attrition

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 171-172:

So that, then, is what I eventually discovered became of the children I spent so much time with in the mid-1980s. All of them acquired some Tayap, and a few of them came to be passive active bilinguals, possessing good competence in Tayap but never putting it to any use. Perhaps as they get older, speakers like Mbonika and Orbmes will begin to use their Tayap in the village. But I predict that if they do so, they’ll use it mostly to sourly chastise people younger than themselves for not speaking Tayap. And by then, it will be too late.

As I looked closely at young people’s Tayap, I saw how the very idea of language death is misguided. A language never just dies; it isn’t here one minute and gone the next. Instead, languages dissolve; they waste away. Looking at young people’s Tayap is like watching ink fade or flesh wither: the language loses its suppleness and becomes etiolated and spare. It shrivels from blowzy fecundity to become a kind of stiff, desiccated husk.

In young people’s Tayap, the first thing to go is the ability to construct intricate synthetic verbs like “She intends to carry him down on her shoulders.” Next to disappear are the complicated ways of linking verbs and forming relative clauses and subordinate clauses (so no “the pig that I speared yesterday” or “we were eating when you came”). Verbs of motion—except “come” and “go”—melt away too.

As speakers get younger in age and less competent in their command of the language, Tayap’s range of tenses disappears, and gender agreement gets wonky. The youngest and least fluent speakers lose the ability to inflect any verbs for their correct subjects and objects; they collapse all classes of verbs to a single paradigm, and they replace Tayap vocabulary with Tok Pisin words.

In their language, the mighty tree that once was Tayap has been whittled down to a skinny toothpick.

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Filed under education, language, Papua New Guinea

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