What is the Difference Between an Extinct Language and a Dead Language?
Languages are dying left and right. According to some estimates, one language dies every two weeks.
As strange as it seems, popularity is the lifeblood of a language. If people stop favouring a language for some reason or lose their culture (or their lives) to foreign invaders, their language often dies along with the last person who actually speaks it.
Today, dozens of languages only have one or two remaining speakers. And when they die, the language will too. More widely, hundreds of the world’s 7,000 languages are on the Endangered Language List right now, which means they’re scraping by on the support of a handful of ageing native speakers.
So, that leads us to ask the question “what is the difference between an extinct language and a dead language?”
Well, here at Global Language Services we’re going to find out. We want to know what the difference is, and whether there is actually any coming back from being considered extinct or dead.
What is an extinct language?
An extinct language is a language that no longer exists due to there being no speakers or users, in linguistics or otherwise.
It’s a language no one bothers to study at all. This can be the case for small, locally-spoken languages that die out but it’s also true of many ancient languages that we just don’t have the information we need to learn.
In those cases, all we have are a few surviving fragments. The rest is lost forever.
What is a dead language?
Fortunately, an extinct language is worse than a dead one.
In linguistics, a dead language is (usually) defined as a language that some people still use, even if there are no native speakers left.
Latin is probably the most widely known dead language. No one speaks it as their everyday language anymore, but it’s still studied for academic purposes. Plus, it teaches us a lot about other commonly spoken languages that are still in use, like the romance languages.
Examples of an Extinct Language
Extinct languages do tend to be those that are niche to a community or smaller population, rather than those that are considered the native language of an entire country.
As we mentioned above, some languages become extinct when the last living speaker dies. This was the case for Native-American language Klallam which became extinct in 2014 after its last speaker, Hazel Sampson, passed away.
There are currently 570 known extinct languages, with some notable examples being Eyak, Yana, Tunica and Tillamook – which are all mostly from Native American tribes.
Examples of a Dead Language
As we discussed above, one of the most well known dead languages is Latin. We covered how it died and how it continues to be used in another post, if you fancy learning more.
But Latin isn’t the only dead language, some of the other known dead languages are Sanskrit, Biblical Hebrew, Ancient Greek and Gothic, all of which are still studied both academically and religiously.
However, not all hope is lost for dead languages. The native language of the Isle of Man – Manx – was once dead and close to being extinct, but thanks to members of the community supporting its revival, Manx is no longer a dead language.
How Do Languages Die?
Languages have faded out of memory for many reasons, far too many to discuss in one article.
To give you a feel for the breadth of reasons, here are a few of the most common:
Evolution: Languages are always evolving, along with the culture and lifestyles of the people who speak them. The English of the 1500s would be barely recognisable to us today and, in fact, sounds much more like modern German.
Transformation: Ancient Greek went through a series of changes that make modern Greek look and sound significantly different. Some languages like Latin didn’t die because all of its speakers died; it just gradually evolved into another set of languages we call the Romance Languages: Italian, Spanish and French, among a few others.
Genocide: Some languages die because of genocide. Kill off an ethnic group of people, and their language goes with them. Sadly, this happens more often over time than we’d like to think. For example, many unknown languages died this way when European invaders took over Tasmania in the early nineteenth century.
Coercion/Cultural Control: Other languages die because foreign invaders impose a state language on conquered territories and force or coerce residents to stop using their native tongues.
Absorption: Some languages die because the people who speak them assimilate with a larger group that’s geographically close, and that language becomes the dominant language instead of their own. The Yupik Eskimos’ language is endangered today because Yupik children began learning English and are using it far more than their native language.
Why Does it Matter?
For linguists, language death is a big deal. As the Linguistic Society of America puts it:
“When a community loses its language, it often loses a great deal of its cultural identity at the same time. Although language loss may be voluntary or involuntary, it always involves pressure of some kind, and it is often felt as a loss of social identity or as a symbol of defeat… Frequently traditions are abruptly lost in the process and replaced by the cultural habits of the more powerful group. For these reasons, among others, it is often very important to the community itself that its language survive.”
The loss of a language also impacts our understanding of the world’s history, diversity and cultures. When languages die, often the history, traditions and culture of the people who spoke it die too.
Without that slice of knowledge, our understanding of the world is less complete.
Can Languages Be Resuscitated?
It’s not easy to shock a dead language back to life but some linguists are determined to do it.
The Endangered Languages Project is a fascinating jumping-off place if you’re curious — but beware if you’re a language geek; the rabbit hole is deep!
For languages on the endangered list, there’s more hope. The remaining native speakers can sometimes incite change (and deeper value for their culture) to help preserve the language before it flickers out.
Technology helps, too. We have the ability to make audio recordings, phonetic transcriptions, and digitally preserve other resources so that when a language does die we still have the ability to keep it frozen in time. And that can make all the difference for future generations who want to learn the language of their ancestors or to dig deeper into their own history.