I am constantly amazed, the longer I study languages and linguistics, at the wealth insight that can be acquired by learning even a small amount of another language. It’s easy for those of us who grew up as monolinguals in parts of the world where our languages reign supreme, to take for granted that which comes with a language. Encoded within the words of any language lies the history of its speakers and the entirety of their worldview. This isn’t something most of us think about on a daily basis – or likely ever – because most of us do not speak languages in this situation. Around 50% of the world’s population speaks only 20 languages, and these are not likely to go away any time soon.
The history of English and its speakers is pretty well documented. It’s written down on everything from stone tablets to Google’s massive databanks and on Voyager’s Golden Records. English has a literary tradition. If every English speaker vanished from the planet tomorrow, people could simply access any number of texts, video/audio sources, movies, literature, or the internet, and dredge up a wealth of resources.
But what if they couldn’t?
What if all of the Internet’s English content was lost, every English text, recording, book, movie destroyed? What if everyone who spoke the language disappeared or forgot how to speak it entirely. Imagine for a second, being one of only a few dozen speakers of English left on Earth. You remember what it was like growing up, speaking English with your friends and family and at school. Watching American movies, listening to British rock. Being able to recite speeches from past presidents, prime ministers, Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe you’re a fan of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings or anything written by Shakespeare.. That’s all gone. Texting with your friends using Internet slang and text speech – nothing.
Kind of bleak and depressing, right?
Estimates vary widely, but it is commonly accepted that between 50% and 90% of the world’s ~7,000 languages will disappear by the end of the 21st century without substantial preservation efforts. Many of these languages do not have literary traditions as English does. There is nobody writing down their ideas, stories, or history. On average a language dies or goes extinct every two weeks when its last speaker dies. When this happens, it’s gone. It’s completely and totally gone along with all trace that it ever existed.
Lets keep our terms straight. A dead language is one that no longer has any native speakers or is at least not used as a common form of communication without very specific, atypical purpose. A dead language does not mean that it isn’t spoken, merely that it doesn’t fit the standard usage of a “living” language. The primary example that people like to cite for a “dead” language is Latin. Latin is largely relegated to nomenclature, medicine and the Catholic church and as a reference language for its linguistic progeny.
An extinct language, on the other hand has no speakers currently living. It may be documented, but it probably isn’t. If for some reason someone manages to learn this language and begin using it again, it may no longer be classified as “extinct”. This is quite rare but a few notable occurrences, such as the Wôpanâak language in Massachussetts, among others, have been brought back to life after considerable periods of “dormancy”. In this case Wôpanâak disappeared for over 150 years.
Endangered languages come in several stages:
- Vulnerable – The majority of children in a given population speak the language but probably primarily at home. It could be falling out of favor.
- Definitely endangered – The language is no longer taught to children in favor of more “popular” local languages.
- Severely endangered – Only the older generations still speak the language; the parent generation may still understand it, they do not make use of the language between one another or to their children.
- Moribund – This term means that the children of a given group no longer speak the language at all. With no child speakers, a language is almost guaranteed to die out.
- Critically endangered – The youngest speakers of a language are elderly. Their children no longer learn the language and it is unlikely to survive without reaching a younger crowd.
Why does this happen?
There are many reasons why languages fall out – or are forced out – of use, some of them more tragic than others. Languages die out when their speakers stop speaking due to force, political or social oppression, or a lack of interest among the youth. Many people – including “language enthusiasts” claim that this doesn’t matter. That this is simply natural selection at work, and that if these languages were still relevant they would still be spoken. To a degree they are correct – if something loses its relevance it falls out of favor, kind of like a typewriter – but they fail to understand all the reasons why these languages go extinct or the implications of such losses. Dying languages are not equitable to the lack of usefulness of typewriters.
But those who are opposed to language revitalization efforts are ignorant of the violence and disease and imperialism that is often the reason for a language – or a culture – to become endangered. Most endangered languages are so because a major world language such as Spanish or Russian – being the language of the state, of the internet and other technology – will become the language most commonly used by indigenous people, especially when it comes to their youth. A lack of new speakers means the eventual death of a language.
|“More than 50% of the world’s languages are located in just eight countries (denoted in red on the map): India, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon. In these countries and around them are the areas that are the most linguistically diverse in the world (denoted in blue on the map)” From Wikipedia.|
Why it matters.
These thousands of languages contain hidden mysteries of the world and its underrepresented people that we cannot unlock without first preventing their disappearance via the preservation and understanding of the languages in question. The possibilities for knowledge or insight that such a plethora of languages could contain that will become lost to the world if nothing is done to preserve these intangible but priceless artifacts of human culture and history. Thousands of years of history, stories and heritage would be lost to all future generations and major pieces of the human portrait would be wiped from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.
There is however some hope for some of these languages. The Enduring Voices project, a collaborative effort between National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. (Facebook page here) are dedicated to the documentation and potential revitalization of endangered languages. This project seeks to preserve these languages through awareness, preservation and the renewal of interest among the younger groups within the communities most at risk.
These days it is easy to lean towards one of the world’s most prominent languages when looking to learn a new one, or travel to a new place. After all, one can often get by in most places in the world knowing English, Spanish, Chinese etc etc, but we need to break away from our notion that only these languages matter.
An arm or an eye that is not given exercise for long enough, will atrophy and become useless. A brain that is not utilized at least every so often will lose some of its cognitive power. A language that belongs to a culture that no longer remembers it, or in which no one is interested, has no *apparent* value and will recede into the past, forgotten and uncared for.
|Yanomami child, courtesy of Living Tongues.|
I do not wish to imply that anyone should stop learning the languages they learn, or that there is something wrong with learning and speaking the world’s most prominent languages, only that it seems a true tragedy that what could be the most important aspect of human culture, is dying off bit by bit, and that few people really seem to care or recognize the issue at hand.
What can we do?
You can help spread the message of institutions and individuals working towards language documentation or revitalization by sharing this post, keeping up on our infographic project, and “liking” and supporting related groups on Facebook and elsewhere.
Make sure to also check out http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/ for an awesome source of information and opportunities to help support revitalization and documentation.
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