In 1980, journalists announced the “discovery” of a “lost tribe” on the island of Bohol, in the Philippines. Speculation about the origins of the group, known as the Eskaya, began almost immediately, with visitors seeking to account for the people’s unique language, clothing and beliefs. Some have proposed that the Eskaya are descended from the Etruscans or from a lost tribe of Israel. Others even accused the group of a hoax, suggesting they fabricated their language to attract government support.
But recent research published by Oxford University Press sheds new light on the conundrum.
“I tried to probe the Eskaya language to see what it might reveal about its own history,” says Dr Piers Kelly, linguistic anthropologist at the University of New England, Australia, and Max Planck affiliate. Institute for the Science of Humans. History in Germany. “But I also wanted to hear the historical insights offered by Eskayan speakers today.”
Spoken Eskyan bears little resemblance to Visayan, the mother tongue of the other inhabitants of the island. Moreover, it is written in a complex script of more than a thousand signs. For several years Kelly lived and worked alongside the Eskaya, recording their language, literature and writing system.
“The Eskayan language is an enigma,” Kelly concedes. “Its grammar is similar to major Filipino languages, but most of its vocabulary is a mystery. At a fundamental level, there is a surprising influence from Spanish and English that cannot be explained by normal borrowing. Symbols belonging to its complex writing system can represent whole words, single syllables, individual letters, or a combination.
Kelly’s linguistic analysis corroborates elements of a traditional story that says the Eskayan language was intentionally created from scratch. In this popular tale, the language and script were both fashioned from the body of an ancestral prophet and then restored for use in the 20th century by an anti-colonial rebel.
“The island of Bohol is known for its long rebellions that energized political independence movements and local creative practices,” says Kelly. “When American forces invaded the island in 1901 and imposed an English school system by force, there was a motivation to promote a kind of hyper-local Esperanto.”
Still used today by around 550 people, there is a prophecy that Eskayan will one day be spoken by everyone in the world. But for now, the Eskaya remain focused on teaching the language locally. In December 2021, Typhoon Odette destroyed an Eskaya language school and teachers are now looking for resources to restore it. Tribal leader Nida Salingay, who worked closely with Kelly to analyze Eskaya literature, said, “We pray that this book will bring greater understanding of our language and history and help keep our tradition alive.
The last language on earth will be available via Oxford University Press on April 7.
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