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.
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, and it teaches us a lot about other commonly spoken languages that are still in use.
An extinct language, on the other hand, is worse than a dead one.
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.
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.
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