By Tom Colls
An estimated 7,000 languages are being spoken around the world. But that number is expected to shrink rapidly in the coming decades. What is lost when a language dies?
In 1992 a prominent US linguist stunned the academic world by predicting that by the year 2100, 90% of the world’s languages would have ceased to exist.
Far from inspiring the world to act, the issue is still on the margins, according to prominent French linguist Claude Hagege.
“Most people are not at all interested in the death of languages,” he says. “If we are not cautious about the way English is progressing it may eventually kill most other languages.”
According to Ethnologue, a US organisation owned by Christian group SIL International that compiles a global database of languages, 473 languages are currently classified as endangered.
Among the ranks are the two known speakers of Lipan Apache alive in the US, four speakers of Totoro in Colombia and the single Bikya speaker in Cameroon.
“It is difficult to provide an accurate count,” says Ethnologue editor Paul Lewis. “But we are at a tipping point. From here on we are going to increasingly see the number of languages going down.”
What is lost?
As globalisation sweeps around the world, it is perhaps natural that small communities come out of their isolation and seek interaction with the wider world. The number of languages may be an unhappy casualty, but why fight the tide?
- 6% of the world’s languages are spoken by 94% of the world’s population
- The remaining 94% of languages are spoken by only 6% of the population
- The largest single language by population is Mandarin (845 million speakers) followed by Spanish (329 million speakers) and English (328 million speakers).
- 133 languages are spoken by fewer than 10 people
“What we lose is essentially an enormous cultural heritage, the way of expressing the relationship with nature, with the world, between themselves in the framework of their families, their kin people,” says Mr Hagege.
“It’s also the way they express their humour, their love, their life. It is a testimony of human communities which is extremely precious, because it expresses what other communities than ours in the modern industrialized world are able to express.”
For linguists like Claude Hagege, languages are not simply a collection of words. They are living, breathing organisms holding the connections and associations that define a culture. When a language becomes extinct, the culture in which it lived is lost too.
The value of language as a cultural artefact is difficult to dispute, but is it actually realistic to ask small communities to retain their culture?
One linguist, Professor Salikoko Mufwene, of the University of Chicago, has argued that the social and economic conditions among some groups of speakers “have changed to points of no return”.
As cultures evolve, he argues, groups often naturally shift their language use. Asking them to hold onto languages they no longer want is more for the linguists’ sake than for the communities themselves.
Ethnologue editor Paul Lewis, however, argues that the stakes are much higher. Because of the close links between language and identity, if people begin to think of their language as useless, they see their identity as such as well.
This leads to social disruption, depression, suicide and drug use, he says. And as parents no longer transmit language to their children, the connection between children and grandparents is broken and traditional values are lost.
“There is a social and cultural ache that remains, where people for generations realize they have lost something,” he says.
What no-one disputes is that the demise of languages is not always the fault of worldwide languages like our own.
An increasing number of communities are giving up their language by their own choice, says Claude Hagege. Many believe that their languages have no future and that their children will not acquire a professional qualification if they teach them tribal languages.
“We can do nothing when the abandonment of a language corresponds to the will of a population,” he says.
Perhaps all is not lost for those who want the smaller languages to survive. As the revival of Welsh in the UK and Maori in New Zealand suggest, a language can be brought back from the brink.
Hebrew, says Claude Hagege, was a dead language at the beginning of the 19th century. It existed as a scholarly written language, but there was no way to say “I love you” and “pass the salt” – the French linguists’ criteria for detecting life.
But with the “strong will” of Israeli Jews, he says, the language was brought back into everyday use. Now it is undeniably a living breathing language once more.
Closer to home, Cornish intellectuals, inspired by the reintroduction of Hebrew, succeeded in bringing the seemingly dead Cornish language back into use in the 20th Century. In 2002 the government recognised it as a living minority language.
But for many dwindling languages on the periphery of global culture, supported by little but a few campaigning linguists, the size of the challenge can seem insurmountable.
“You’ve got smallest, weakest, least resourced communities trying to address the problem. And the larger communities are largely unaware of it,” says Ethnologue editor Paul Lewis.
“We would spend an awful lot of money to preserve a very old building, because it is part of our heritage. These languages and cultures are equally part of our heritage and merit preservation.”
Do you think the world’s languages should be preserved? Are you a member of a community trying to keep your language alive? Here are a selection of your comments.
Each language is a seed-bed for poetic expression – that can capture some thing beyond mere communication. Every time a language is lost the “genetic basis” for such poetry is less rich. Gavin Brelstaff, Alghero, Sardinia
At least we have come a long way from the times when languages were repressed and forbidden in favor of the language of the dominant polical or colonial power. But I believe that the matter of preserving declining languages should best be left to private iniative among those who have a personal interest in seeing them preserved. Paul Kachur, Oberheimbach, Germany
I’m a sociolinguist specializing in endangered languages and language planning. I’m Italian and in my country over 40 historical languages are spoken, but most of them are endangered, particularly those which are are known as ‘dialects’. This applies to the area where I was born as well, Milan. Milanese (which is as different from Italian as, say, Spanish is) is highly endangered and nothing is being done to promote it. In Brunei, too, where I live and work (I’m a lecturer at the local university), at least 9 out of the 11 local minority languages are endangered, some only slightly (like Iban for example), some severely (like Belait). Here, too, nothing is being done to preserve them… Paolo Coluzzi, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
I believe that all languages are unique and helps to identfy who we are as a people and as an individual. It is unfortunate that most languages are on the verge of dying but thats the price of progress. Namron, Barbados
The flip side of the revival of Hebrew, which the article doesn’t mention, is the probably imminent demise of Yiddish and Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish), two previously vibrant Jewish languages (New York City once had seven Yiddish newspapers!). The movement to transform Hebrew from a liturgical language into the national language of Israel had as much to do with 19th-century Zionist romanticism as anything else. Yiddish and Ladino were considered ghetto languages by Zionist intellectuals, and so not only not worthy of preservation, but deserving of oblivion. Early Jewish immigrants to Palestine and later Israel, for example, were encouraged to discard their “ghetto” names and take Hebrew ones; the speaking of languages other than Hebrew (but especially Yiddish) was actively discouraged. So is the result the triumphant revival of a dead language, or the loss of a thousand years of the Jewish experience in Europe? MD, Canterbury, UK
The utility of a single global language, spoken by everyone as their mother tongue, would surely outweigh any loss of cultural heritage. The proliferation of Scots Gaelic bilingual signs in areas without Gaelic speakers (Aberdeenshire?!) is eccentric to say the least. Let languages die their natural deaths -there are plenty left. Danny McShane, Aberdeen
Native Irish speaker and I have almost lost it. Government spending millions promoting same. Very difficult against TV and reading almost exclusively English. Endangered languages should be archived and let go. Charles Mc Fadden, London England
Its sad when a language dies out, but it is unavoidable isn’t it? If not by suddenly no longer being used, it will happen simply due to the language changing slowly over time. The ‘English’ that exists today is very different from a thousand years ago and from what will be in a thousand years.History is littered with languages which no longer exist. Nik, London, U.K
Absolutely; language is intrinsicly linked between culture and ethnisity. Preserving the language is preserving the history and identity of a specific people. My own language is closely linked with Illyrian and I can make out some ancient etruscan, messapian, macedonian,thracian, and egyptian words and phrases because of it. It is absolutely amazing that my langugae was able to survive the influx of greek and slavic/mongolian invasion. Anne Gillette, New York
I have studied languages reconstructed completely from written records, and know first-hand the enormous scholarly value in preserving languages. But languages are not here for our intellectual amusement. The economic and social benefits of fewer languages to the living world are clear – that’s why it’s happening. People should not be made to feel guilty about releasing past traditions, linguistic or otherwise. They do not live in a museum. Rather than diminishing a person’s sense of self-worth by telling them that they are bad for giving up old traditions, maybe they should be lauded for not being trapped in the past, and shown their intrinsic value as human beings regardless of the culture in which they partake! Scott, San Francisco, USA
When a language dies, a way of thinking dies with it. Some Native American languages have completely different concepts of past and present embedded in their language. Russian verbs offer a variety of ways to express actions, that Hebrew doesn’t have, but Hebrew has a way of expressing actions that a person does for others that doesn’t exist in Russian. Romance languages have well-defined ways to express things that should happen, but not necessarily do – a trait not found in every language. This list could go on forever. Amir E. Aharoni, Jerusalem, Israel
I think that the reduction in the number of languages spoken is also a great way to help unify the world and the human race in general. How can we expect cultures to keep peace between each other when they cannot understand each other? Having one, or a few global languages will make things much more convenient and seamless. Also languages isolate communities. Which are most likely to be economically weak. ‘Our heritage’ is only history, and history will never and can never be more important than the present or the future. Parsa, UK
No, languages naturally evolve, Professor Salikoko Mufwene is absolutely right when he says that asking groups to hold onto languages they no longer want is more for the linguists’ sake than for the communities themselves. Communities are best served by a language which can be used to communicate intelligibly with the greatest number of people. It would seem to me that the fewer the number of languages, the fewer the chances for misunderstanding one another. The revival of dead or minority languages such as those mentioned in the article is an affectation at best and insular at worst. Even if people no longer communicated with one another using these minor languages that does not mean that knowledge of these minor languages would be gone. After all, no one now speaks Latin, but the language itself is not lost. Alex McCallum, Airdrie, Scotland
Most of the problems in the world stem from a lack of communications. If we all spoke English then these problems might disapear. It may be sad to lose other languages, but we must strive for one universal language. Ray Dorrity, Lymington, Hampshire
When a language disappears, the knowledge and thought that has been stored in the language through generations of use, disappears with it. With the growth of powerful and widespread world languages, such as English, Chinese and Spanish, it will be necessary to take steps to protect linguistic diversity, in order to ensure the survival of smaller languages. Shouvik Datta, Orpington, Kent, United Kingdom
If we as human beings can all communicate in the same tongue, then maybe we will start to treat the whole polulation od the world equally and that can be no bad thing! David Evans, Frinton on Sea, Essex
Not only is the death of languages a natural thing, it’s also a good thing. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ wrote Wittgenstein. By that he meant if you can’t describe an object or a concept in a language, then you can’t think about it or engage with it. Concepts of parliamentary democracy, the liberal economy or multicultural societies cannot be expressed in Mayan or Navajo or even Latin. It’s one of the reasons they’re dead while English-speaking societies thrive and prosper around from the world. Alex Clarke, Brora, Highlands
I grew up speaking a German dialect, and didn’t speak English until I went to school. My father always asked us if we were richer having two dollars or one dollar. He said the same was true of language. Eugenia Bostwick, Pinckney, Mi, USA
A good proverb: A house divided against itself cannot stand. The Earth is the home of humans, plants, animals, various forms of life. Right now we humans have divide this home of ours’ into divided nations, languages, religions, etc. In this time and age we need unity more than divisions. What is the point of having hundreds of languages that will make it difficult for people from different places to communicate. A Lwin, Geneva, Switzerland
Every word has stories woven through it. When we lose a language, we lose so many words and stories. I’d like them to be remembered somehow. Steve Rpe, Woodinville, USA
Languages that are dying out should just be catalogued for the interests of linguists, but communities shouldn’t be forced to use it, and at the very most it should be taught to the next generation as a secondary language, much like Welsh is in Wales. James Turner, Cardiff, Wales