Language Death, Part II

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.

Last month, we examined the question of language death and how large a problem it is. This month, we’ll take a look at what the consequences of language death are and what can be done to address the problem.

Is it really a problem?
Isn’t the multiplicity of languages a barrier to communications? Wouldn’t a reduction in the number of languages improve the human condition and be a catalyst for peace? It is a common belief that a single language, or at least fewer languages, would make it easier for peoples to communicate, improve trade and economic conditions, and make war less likely.

Let’s take the last claim first. Are people who speak a common language less likely to make war with one another? Some of the bloodiest conflicts in recent years have been civil wars in countries where people speak the same language. Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Burundi, Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and China-Taiwan are all examples of conflicts or potential flashpoints between peoples who speak the same language. As a matter of fact, linguistic uniformity is more likely the result of war and violence than a vaccine for it. The dominant languages of the world, English, Russian, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese are dominant because at some point in history those peoples engaged in extended periods of imperialism, bringing their language to others at the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun.

But there is truth to the belief that a common language can be beneficial in many ways, particularly economically. A common language facilitates trade and one of the driving forces behind language death is urbanization and other migrations of people seeking economic opportunity. They abandon the dialects of their home in favor of a tongue that opens doors to prosperity. This belief however assumes that one must choose between languages, it is either one or another. This is simply not the case, as is evidenced by the fact that most people in this world speak two or more languages. Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States need to learn English to make the most of the American economy, but this does not mean they need to abandon Spanish. The Netherlands is an excellent example of a nation with a vibrant home language while encouraging the use of English and other European languages.

How does the death of one language diminish others?
Anyone who has studied English etymology knows that the answer to this is yes. Languages borrow from one another—and none do so more than English. Contact with speakers of other languages enriches a language, giving it access to words and concepts that it lacks. Reducing the number of languages inevitably reduces the opportunities for borrowing terms and concepts.

And it is not just borrowing words that is at stake. Language death means the loss of literature and folklore, written or oral. Even if written down and preserved, the literature becomes inaccessible to all but a handful of linguists who bother to learn a dead language.

History, too, loses valuable evidence when languages die. It is not simply the loss of the stories that are told, although this can be a tremendous loss in and of itself, but the very structure of language contains valuable historical clues. For example, there are no contemporary written accounts of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England. Accounts such as Bede’s come centuries later and are often at odds with each other and with physical evidence. Language can come to our rescue. By studying the spelling (which reflected pronunciation much more than English does today) and word choice, we can often see which groups of Germanic invaders were dominant during a particular period or the extent to which they influenced one another.

The hard sciences can also suffer with the loss of languages, particularly indigenous languages. Indigenous peoples often make subtle distinctions in their languages relating to flora, fauna, and geology found in their regions. These distinctions are not always readily apparent to Western science and the indigenous languages can often point scientists to discoveries of new animal and plant species or to interesting geologic formations.

Finally, each language is interesting in and of itself. Each language is vital to the continuing study of linguistics and cognitive sciences. The loss of each language is the loss of valuable data, making it more difficult to further our understanding of these fields. There clearly is a problem with language death. The consequences may not be as severe as with the loss of biological species, a phenomenon with which language death is often compared, but the negative consequences are significant. The disappearance of languages across the globe.

Last month we saw that this is a growing problem. While languages have always died, they are disappearing at a greater rate today than in the past. This, coupled with the negative consequences of this that we have seen in this article, require that something be done to slow the disappearance and mitigate the consequences. Next month we’ll take a look at what steps can be taken to do this.

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