Languages Are Dying and Here’s Why

How Languages Die


The history of spoken language is much more difficult to track than written language. The earliest written records are some 12,000 years old, but inevitably humans have been speaking or verbally communicating with each other for as long as 100,000 years. Since spoken languages leave no permanent record other than traditions and tales passed down between generations, finding numbers of speakers and languages before the generations we have immediate contact with is incredibly difficult. But even with limited resources and increasingly creative ways to establish linguistic histories, scientists and linguists around the world are seemingly in a race against the clock to record and catalogue spoken tongues; we are currently experiencing one of the greatest and fastest language extinctions in history.


Ethnologue is one of the foremost institutions that track living languages, and they have put the current total at 7,097. This number itself has only been growing, while we have been watching helplessly as languages all around us have been rapidly fading into extinction. Optimistic experts say half of these 7,097 languages will no longer have any native speakers – the definition of an extinct language – by the end of the century. Pessimistic experts say 90 percent of all languages spoken today will be gone in a hundred years. Truly, at the rate we are heading, losing a language entirely once every four months and having lost about 30 entire families of languages since 1960, time does not seem to be on our side.


Why does it matter?

To put it in the simplest way possible, the loss of a language means the loss of that form of communication’s unique way to express the ideas, traditions, history, music, literature, and culture of the people who speak it. Along with the language, we lose crucial knowledge about the way that group communicated and explained the world around them. This becomes especially relevant with the area of study that emerged within the past half-century: ethnobotany. Many indigenous languages have much more specific linguistic characterizations for plants and materials, and what a more globalized language might consider another sample of the same species. This research, coordinated with tribal leaders and indigenous peoples alongside scientists, tracks methods of healing used in remote tribes to find sources of medicine. It entails a combination of pharmacology, anthropology, linguistics, and botany.


Cause of Death: “Killer languages,” globalization, and shifting plates

Numerous factors influence the death of languages, and rather than a steady drop, certain historic events fuel this growing loss. Historical linguists have estimated that there may have been as many as 20,000 languages spoken around the world as late as 8,000 years ago. This was a few short centuries after humans shifted away from a nomadic lifestyle and settled in one place to establish farming communities. Before this time, humans only typically existed in groups as large as a couple hundred, and as with any distinct group, identical languages were not often shared between these groups. Throughout most of history, languages have had 500 or fewer speakers. This reflects on the fact that almost a quarter of languages spoken today – 1,514 – have less than 1,000 speakers. At least 3,731 languages, more than half of those alive today, have less than 10,000 speakers.

Source: Ethnologue – 8 living languages constitute 0.1% of all languages but more than 40% of all speakers. Conversely, 5,727 languages make up 80% of all languages but constitute just over 1% of all speakers.


Linguistic cannibals

A common theme among the discussion of dying languages is the idea of “killer languages”, or languages that take over the position that other, less spoken languages once held. English, Spanish, and French are three prime examples, in part because of the number of speakers of these languages is spread out over tens of countries and also because of the economic power that thrives underneath them. While, in a sense, colonial powers invading local populations and imposing linguistic rule would seem to be the leading cause of language death, the much larger source is the loss of the sense of need for younger generations to learn.

What has been seen to happen all over the world is that parents assume the idea that a local language serves no greater purpose when the business of the world is conducted in English (or French, Spanish, or Chinese), and being able to assimilate into that world takes precedent in their mind above the preservation of the language. Many people who speak endangered languages either don’t realize the situation they’re in or aren’t completely interested. And while it has been shown repeatedly that bilingualism is in no way detrimental to the economic success of individuals around the world, parents are going to raise their children as they please.



Climate change and natural disasters

One serious factor that has led to an increase in language death over the past few decades is climate change. Natural disasters, floods, earthquakes, and similar environmental events have either killed off or forcibly relocated indigenous populations, leading to the kind of migration that results in cultures merging and languages fading away. For example, there are at least 110 languages spoken on the island nation of Vanuatu, the third most linguistically diverse country on Earth in terms of number of distinct languages compared with the total population. Some of its islands have begun to sink as a result of shifting tectonic plates, forcing whole villages to relocate. Indonesia faced similar problems, another massively diverse country, when flooding forced groups speaking languages previously unknown to the outside world from their villages in the mountains.


Politics of the tongue

For several hundred years, English-language speaking nations gained a cruel notoriety for actively working to suppress the languages of natives. America and Canada, with the Native American Indians, dove deep into the most surgical and effective way of smashing out languages: severing the connection parents make passing their native language to their children. For decades, the states of these countries would rip children from their parents and force them into boarding schools, where they would be corporally punished for speaking anything other than the official state language. The effects of this kind of policy have lasting effects, evident by the huge number of languages that have gone extinct in America: nine language families have disappeared in the past two centuries in America alone; approximately 175 of the more than 300 indigenous languages spoken when Christopher Columbus sailed to America have gone extinct.


Russia and China are two nations whose governments view local cultures and languages as a threat to their hegemony and have enacted policies bent on reducing the influence of non-official languages. Another more sinister example happened in El Salvador in the 1930s, when indigenous populations abandoned their own languages to avoid being identified and killed after the Salvadoran army massacred thousands of native people.


Source: Ethnologue – Languages in the 6b – 9 categories are considered endangered.


Reviving and reigniting

While extinction appears to be final and irreversible, there are a few instances of languages coming back from, or the brink of, extinction.


Wampanoag (Massachusett Language)

This language was spoken by Native Americans in the northeastern United States, and the first written records of the language were made by Christian missionaries (a translation of a bible in the 17th century) and, later on, legal documents and public records. The last groups of fluent speakers began to pass away in the late 19th century, and the last known fluent speaker died in 1890 at the age of 90. Jessie Little Doe Baird, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag, formed the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project in 1993, and using official records, previous translations, and the vast linguistic resources of MIT, recreated the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary of the language. She published a thesis on the revived language in 2000, and the Project boasted in 2014 of a handful of children having grown up as native speakers.


Hebrew never went entirely extinct, but the language moved out of common use around the 2nd century CE and was only used for religious traditions and scholarship for almost 1,700 years. Along with the rise of Jewish nationalism in the late 19th century and the beginning of a large migration of European Jews to Palestine, Hebrew went into use as a lingua franca between diverse Jewish populations. Use of the language proliferated after the end of WWI when the British Empire took control of part of the region, established an administration, and declared Hebrew one of the states three official languages along with English and Arabic. Jewish immigrants often learned Hebrew as a second language, but with the new generation born in Israel-Palestine, Hebrew became the first language for millions of Jews living in the area.




Where do we go from here?

Saving dying languages is no easy feat. No matter how extensive records may be, there is always going to be some aspect of the language that fades away with its speakers: pronunciation, syntax, idioms, colloquial phrases, or the nuances of that particular language. Some global organizations are working tirelessly to find the last speakers of dying languages; the Endangered Languages Project, the Endangered Language Alliance, and Cultural Survival are three examples of this kind of organizations. Incidentally, one city that has drawn so much attention for dying languages is New York, where immigrants and locals are among the final speakers of as many as 800 endangered languages.


Ata Translation Agency prides itself on reaching more than 300 languages and dialects around the world for translation services. With services offered for languages spoken in remote regions of India to America, we work to help people with high-quality translations that themselves can act as a record of the bridge between languages. Send us an email or call us today for more information about our services or to get a free translation, interpretation, or localization quote.


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About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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