Language Death, Part I

The issue of language death is a hot topic among linguists. Language death is the disappearance of dialects from the globe, the reduction in the number of dialects that are spoken worldwide. Most linguists agree that we are in the midst of an era where languages are disappearing at an extremely rapid rate and that this will result in various dire consequences for humanity and culture.

In this short series of articles we’ll examine the question of language death, how large a problem it is, and what the consequences are likely to be.

What is Meant by the Death of a Language?
How can a language die? It is not a living thing. A language is said to be dead or extinct when no one speaks it anymore. (Some say a language is dead when only one speaker is left, for someone has to have another to speak it to.) A classic example is Latin. While it is still used in religious liturgy and a few other specialized purposes, no one is coining new words in Latin; no one speaks it to their children; no one is composing or reading new Latin literature. While Latin is well recorded and still taught in many schools, it is most definitely dead. Other languages die unremarked and unrecorded. They disappear from the face of the globe without leaving a trace.

Some linguists make comparisons to the extinction of species in the biological realm. There are intriguing parallels in description of the phenomenon, if not in effect. As a species dwindles in number, its opportunities for mutation and genetic diversity of its gene pool decreases. It is much the same with language; as the number of speakers of a language dwindles, diversity in patterns of speech do as well. Although some question the statistics, the number of biological species facing extinction is markedly on the rise. So it appears too with the number of languages at risk.

What happens to languages on the decline?
Languages do not simple blink out of existence like a light bulb burning out. There are changes that can be seen and measured as a language moves down the path toward extinction. As the speakers of a language dwindle in number, there are grammatical and vocabulary changes that occur.

Grammar tends to simplify. Inflections and complex moods are lost. As less literature, either oral or written, is produced, the language ceases to push the limits of what it can do. Usually, a language loses speakers in favor of another, dominant language. (This is often English, but not always so. Native South American languages, for example, usually lose out in favor of Spanish. Languages in China lose out in favor of Mandarin.) The dying language often adopts the grammatical forms of the dominant language—not totally, but to some extent.

Vocabulary also simplifies. New words and idioms cease to be used or coined. The use of and invention of new slang declines precipitously. Borrowing from the dominant language intensifies. Whole fields of vocabulary surrender to the dominant language, notably in business and trade and science and technology. The language becomes insular, focused on the home and becomes less and less used for contact with the outside world. This occurs even in languages that are not in any real danger of extinction. Dutch, for example, is a healthy language and is not going to disappear in the foreseeable future, but it too suffers from this to some extent.

In the final stages of its life, a language becomes a hollow shell of what it once it once was.

These changes are indicative, but not definitive. These same changes can occur in healthy languages. English, for example, has been undergoing grammatical simplification (i.e., losing inflections) for a millennium and rarely meets a foreign word that it is not willing to appropriate. But in healthy languages, these trends are countered by others. The grammatical simplification in English is countered by use of syntax to serve grammatical functions and burgeoning use of slang and idiom that convey subtle shades of meaning. And while English borrows words, it does not rely on any one, or even a few, as sources for borrowing.

How big a problem is language death?
To answer this, we first have to determine what the state of linguistic diversity is. Ethnologue ( lists 6,809 languages, although this figure includes extinct languages, like Latin, that are used for ritualistic purposes. The total number of living languages that have native speakers is around 6,000. Of these, eight languages (English, Mandarin, Spanish, Bengali, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, and Portuguese) each have over 100 million native speakers. With just over six billion people in the world, these eight languages, a little more than one tenth of one percent of all languages spoken, are spoken natively by some 13% of the world’s population. In all, the largest 4% of languages are spoken by 96% of the population. Conversely, this means that 96% of all languages spoken today are done so by only 4% of the people in the world. These are the languages from which the endangered languages come from.

Only some 300 of the 6,000 languages have over a million speakers. Roughly 5,000 of the languages spoken in the world have less than 100,000 speakers. And more than half of all languages spoken today have less than 10,000 native speakers.

Are languages dying at a faster rate today? This is believed by many to be the case, but accurate statistics are not available to prove this. Languages have always died. From antiquity we know of Etruscan, Hittite, and Phrygian, languages that were extinct in classical times. What is to say that the rate today is faster than in previous eras? There are circumstances that lead us to believe that they are dying in ever-greater numbers, notably the fallout from European colonialism. Native American languages, for example are dying out in large numbers and being replaced by only three—English, Spanish, and Portuguese. In Africa, the mechanics of and reasons for language replacement are different, but there languages are disappearing largely in favor of English, French, and Arabic.

So, while we do not know if languages are disappearing faster today than previously, but languages are disappearing in large numbers in any case.

When is a language in danger?
There is no magic criterion for determining when a language is in danger. A language is not simply endangered because the number of its speakers is small. More important is the stability of the language. A language can be stable and vibrant with 1,000 speakers and a language with over a million can be in danger. Take Breton, the Celtic language of Brittany, for example. As late as 1905, it was estimated to have nearly one and a half million speakers. Today, Ethnologue says that only half a million speak it on a daily basis. This is a precipitous drop in just a century. In the case of Breton, it is economic opportunity that puts the language in danger; young people leave Brittany for jobs elsewhere and jobs at home increasingly require French and not Breton.

But clearly, the number of speakers are a factor. Dutch is under the same pressures that Breton is, yet it is not in danger. There are two differences. First Dutch is a national language and there are political and social pressures in its favor. But more importantly, Dutch is spoken by some 18 million people in the Netherlands and Belgium and by another two million worldwide.

Catastrophe can doom a language, especially one spoken by only a small number. The Irish potato famine beginning in 1845 killed one million and forced the emigration of millions more. In the process, it pushed Irish Gaelic to the brink of extinction. From some eight million speakers before the famine, it has dwindled to about a quarter million today and is only alive due to deliberate and sustained attempts by the Irish government to keep it so. Disease can also be a factor, even among large populations. Native American populations sharply declined as a result of European diseases and HIV/AIDS appears to be doing something very similar in Africa today.

Death is not the only effect catastrophes have on language. Catastrophes also cause dislocation of populations. People move, severing ties with old communities and learning new languages. And dislocation is not only the result of natural catastrophe. War and changing economics can also affect languages. Urbanization, the movement from rural communities to cities, also breaks ties with old communities and force adoption of another language. Dislocation can also be a result of economic opportunity. Globalization can bring economic benefits to a community, but also entice it to adopt a dominant language.

Languages are certainly disappearing from the globe at a rapid pace and are people are increasingly being drawn to a small number of languages. In future articles in this series we will examine what the significance of this is and what can be done to mitigate or stop language death.

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