Endangered Languages: The Death of Culture. | Languages Around the Globe

Endangered Languages: The Death of Culture.

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.

Some terminology.

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.
endangered language hotspots, living tongues

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.

over 50% of the world's languages contained here
“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 native child
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.

List of successfully revived languages.
List of endangered languages. (From the Endangered Languages Archive)

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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • Wow it makes you want to learn some of those endangered languages! I think there is a need to raise awareness in people, because most have never heard about languages like Arem or Yami (including myself), not to talk about their extinction. It’s really a pity, every language reflects a way of thinking and viewing the world and if we give preference to “global” languages we’ll just end up more united linguistically but less original and individual, as I see it. Thank you for this article!

    • Hey Julia, thanks for your comment. It does indeed make you want to run out and learn one! I recently got pretty involved with Living Quechua’s documentary project and it inspired me to start learning a little bit of Quechua. One of the more challenging languages I’ve attempted, and I’m not sure how serious a project it will end up being, but it’s a lot of fun in the meantime. It’s one thing to learn a larger, more mainstream language, and it feels great regardless of the language’s rarity. But there’s something special about experiencing a language that so few people choose to experience.

      It can also be very difficult to find resources for learning endangered languages. Quechua is fortunate enough to have comparably more support from various organizations and projects such as Living Quechua. While still definitely endangered, it can still boast a reasonable speaker count whereas languages such as Ayapaneco only has two speakers remaining, in their 70s and who despise one another and won’t converse.

  • This is a great cause! I didn’t realize that so many languages hold such a bleak future. The Enduring Voices project sounds like it will prevent extinction for at least some of these endangered languages. I agree with you when you compared it with the typewriter; most people will only learn languages that are ‘useful’. Mainly because these ‘useful’ languages, like English, Spanish, Mandarin, Portuguese, etc., are able to benefit you in terms of dollars and cents. I’m curious what interesting stories and histories the Enduring Voices project will uncover for the rest of us.

    • Me too! There are several talking dictionaries available on the websites of both Living Tongues and Enduring Voices, and probably others. You may have a hard time actually learning a language from one of these, but the fact that they exist at all in electronic format is a testament to preservation efforts and the will of the people to preserve their heritage. I highly recommend checking them out!

      Thank you reading and for your comment!

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