This is an old blog post about an even older story (Holly's linkblogs: never knowingly relevant!) but I just read it the other day and found it really striking.
To preserve as many scraps of the dying language as possible, linguists have taken Esenç to Oslo and to Paris, where he has been four times. Others have trooped rutted tracks to the farm village of Haci Osman where the last of the Ubykh speakers lives in a hut with a dirt floor. Mr. Esenç became the primary source of not only the Ubykh language, but also of the mythology, culture and customs of the Ubykh people. To elucidate some of the puzzling features of the language, Mr. Esenç even allowed himself to be X-rayed while articulating. One interesting issue raised by the necessity of working with just one speaker of the language is whether his way of speaking is representative of the language in general or is peculiar to him alone. In the case of Mr. Esenç, it turned out that he was a purist, and therefore his idiolect of Ubykh (i.e. personal way of speaking) is considered by some as the closest thing to a standard “literary” Ubykh language that existed.That consonant inventory! (This bit's a little technical but I wanted to copy it for my own admiration as much as anything, but I can try to explain if people want.)
It has consonants in at least eight, perhaps nine, basic places of articulation, distinguishing for example alveolar, post-alveolar, alveolo-palatal and retroflex affricates and fricatives. It also distinguishes plain, palatalized and labialized stops and fricatives. Its sound inventory contains 29 distinct fricatives, 27 sibilants, 20 uvulars and 3 different l-sounds, more than any other documented language. Ubykh also has the most disproportional ratio of phonemic consonants to vowels (though analyses of different scholars produce different vowel phoneme counts). Thus, as John Colarusso remarked, “any rigorous account of human phonetic perceptual capacity will have to take into account this precious marvel, Ubykh”. And luckily some of it is now recorded on Georges Dumézil’s file cards, on tape and in those X-ray images of Mr. Esenç. (You can hear some sample Ubykh sound files here.)