Language Death, Part III
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 unfortunate consequences for humanity and culture.
In the last two months, we have examined the question of language death, how large a problem it is, and what the consequences of language death are. This month we look at what can be done to address the problem.
Political, Social, & Economic Development
The best way to protect endangered languages is to reduce or eliminate the causes of their decline, to treat the cause and not the symptoms, as it were. One of the biggest causes of language decline is that a language used by a dominant majority kills off the language of a minority community. There are many different ways that a dominant language can drive out a minority one, but they fall into three broad categories, political, social, and economic.
Political causes of language death range from the extreme of genocide to comparatively milder policies designed to discourage use of minority languages. Cases in point are the native languages of the Americas and Australia, where Indians and Aborigines were actively discouraged from teaching their children their native tongues, preferring English, Spanish, and Portuguese instead. The policies of the Soviet Union are another example, where languages throughout the Soviet empire were suppressed in favor of Russian. And of course, the Nazi genocide of the Jews dealt a near-fatal blow to Yiddish.
In the western world, at least, the more extreme forms of political suppression of minority languages has largely ended (although there are some holdouts still, in the Balkans for example). These extreme forms are widely recognized as evil for many reasons, not just as causes of language death. But the subtle forms are still widespread. The movement to make the English language the official language of the United States is one such example. The movement deliberately targets minority dialects, such as Spanish (a minority in the United States) and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE or Ebonics) for extinction.
Political causes alone are unlikely to kill off a language with a sufficiently large enough community of speakers. Most of the minority languages of the Soviet Union, for example, were never seriously endangered. And the political policies in the Americas and Australia against native languages would have had relatively little effect if the native populations had not been decimated by disease. (Despite the claims of some, genocide was never a serious factor in either the Americas or Australia. While isolated atrocities did occur, deliberate policies of extermination were never in place—and those who committed atrocities were often brought to justice.) But conversely, if a population is small enough, political factors can wipe out a language.
This is not to say that encouraging the use of a lingua franca for communication is not a good thing. In the United States, for example, the standard American dialect of English should clearly be the common language of communication and all should be encouraged to speak it fluently. But this does not mean that speakers have to give up their native dialect. It is not an “either/or” question.
Social causes of language death are similar to the political ones, except they are not deliberately enacted. The view that certain dialects are socially inferior or rustic can cause speakers to abandon them in favor of the dominant language. A good case in point is AAVE. There is considerable social pressure in the United States forcing black speakers of this dialect to abandon it in favor of “proper” English.
Examples of social causes include the absence of minority dialects from radio and television, discrimination against those that have speech patterns that reflect their minority status, and difficulty in getting literature published in minority dialects.
While social causes are more difficult to correct than the political causes, they can still be addressed. Again, AAVE provides some constructive examples. In recent years, more black television and radio programs have appeared. AAVE speakers are not absent from the airwaves. There are also serious attempts to publish AAVE literature. The promotion of AAVE speakers as a vibrant community with something to contribute to the larger society is valuable. This can be replicated elsewhere, where the minority language is truly in danger.
The third class is economic causes. These are the largest and most expensive to solve. A leading cause of language death is the migration of peoples in search of economic opportunity. The lack of jobs in the village forces a migration of the young to the cities, losing their native dialects in a generation or so. The communities left behind become depopulated shells of what they once were. This pattern can be seen throughout the world, from the Gaelic communities of Ireland and Scotland, to Africa, to India, to native communities in the Americas.
By encouraging economic growth in the minority communities, this problem can be ameliorated. If there are legitimate economic opportunities at home, people will have less incentive to leave. Ireland provides a good example. The diaspora of the Irish people has been a significant factor in the decline of Irish Gaelic. But in recent years Ireland (both the Republic and Northern Ireland) has seen an economic reversal. The Irish economy is booming and people are actually coming to Ireland to seek jobs. This reversal in population trends is a good sign for Gaelic (although in and of itself probably not enough to save the language).
Globalization, often criticized as being the cause of such problems, can be a savior of languages by encouraging local economies. Jobs can be brought to the minority communities, as opposed to the people of those communities leaving to find jobs. But of course it must be done right. Indian minority languages, for example, will benefit little if all the high-tech jobs are located in Bangalore and Irish Gaelic won’t benefit if all the new jobs are in Dublin.
This solution is rather obvious; if a language is to survive it should be taught to the next generation. Formal instruction in a minority language is essential to the survival of that language. A case in point is Irish Gaelic, which is alive almost solely because of the educational system and the deliberate encouragement of the Irish government.
But it is not enough to just teach the language. Teachers who speak the minority language should be present in the educational system as role models, regardless of what subject they teach.
In the early-to-mid 1990s many feared that the internet would serve to cement English as the world language and would be instrument of destruction for many minority languages. They pointed to the fact that a disproportionate number of web sites and email and newsgroup postings were in English and concluded that to take advantage of this resource, people would have to use English. This perception was skewed by three facts. One is that the initial surge of growth in the internet occurred in the United States. The second was that a disproportionate amount of the content was technical and scientific—subjects that are predominantly discussed in English regardless of the country of origin, English being the lingua franca of technical and scientific communication. The third was that in the early years, there were no standards for non-Latin characters. Languages that did not use the Latin alphabet were at a disadvantage in cyberspace.
But as the internet grew, both geographically and in scope of subjects, this changed. More and more websites and discussion groups cropped up using different languages. More and more email traffic was written in languages other than English. Finally, the adoption of Unicode and other standards for a bewildering variety of font sets, including double-byte fonts, opened the floodgates for minority language usage of the internet.
As a result, the internet is rapidly becoming a savior of many endangered languages. It effectively increases the pool of “speakers” by connecting those who have left their home communities with each other and with those left behind. And unlike the formality of written communication, electronic communication is more prone to slang and variety, the engines of language growth and change.
Literacy comes in two components. First, the language must have a written form. Second, people must know how to read and write.
Many of the world’s endangered languages are oral languages. They do not have written forms or their writing is limited to ritualistic uses and not much used in daily life. Any oral language is just one generation away from extinction. Also, those who leave the community find it difficult to communicate with those back home unless they can write. Without literacy, letters and the internet are useless, leaving only the telephone and for most of these languages, telephone service to the home communities is problematic at best.
Without literacy, there can be no dictionaries or teaching materials, and literature can be too easily lost if it is only an oral tradition. This complicates revival and reconstitution of a language.
And even if there is a written form of the language, people must know how to use it. Often, people learn their minority dialects at home and the dominant language in school. Written communication is done in the dominant language and the minority dialects are used orally with friends and family.
Study & Documentation
The final step, and often it is the final step before a language disappears into oblivion, is for linguists to record and document the language and its literature. While this does little to stave off language death, it can ameliorate some the effects, preserving the language and its literature for others.
Resurrecting Languages, Can It Be Done? The case of Hebrew
If a language has passed on, can it be brought back? There have been attempts with truly dead languages, none really successful. There is, for example, an active attempt to revive Cornish, but other than creating something for tourists to listen to, it hasn’t been very successful. The grammar is highly formal and rigid, there is no slang development, and the vocabulary is limited.
But there have been a few examples of languages plucked from the brink of extinction and returned to a healthy and vibrant status. One such is Hebrew, a language which combined most of the above remedies to revive itself.
By the late-19th century, Hebrew was on the brink of distinction. Like Latin, it endured an existence as a liturgical language and for theological commentary, but few spoke or wrote it colloquially. There were some small groups of Jews who did use it, however, and there was a small, but active, body of literature in Hebrew. But it was clearly on the brink of extinction as a living language. Today it is alive and well with over five million speakers.
The Hebrew revival movement began in 1881 when Eliezar Ben-Yehuda emigrated to Palestine from Russia. Ben-Yehuda concluded that the Zionist movement needed a language to unite the Jewish peoples from different nations and that Hebrew, for historical and religious reasons, was the natural choice. Ben-Yehuda based his Modern Hebrew on the ancient language, but added vocabulary and some grammatical forms. He borrowed from Russian and other languages to update the archaic forms and words.
Modern Hebrew received political encouragement, first from various Zionist groups, then after 1948, from the Israeli government, which made it one of the official languages of Israel (Arabic being the other). In Palestine and later Israel, Hebrew was not socially threatened. There was no dominant language that threatened assimilation of the Jewish people. Arabic had economic allure, as did various European languages, but the desire to promote a Jewish community helped keep Modern Hebrew alive.
The political and social forces trumped the economic incentives in Israel’s early days and in the case of Hebrew there was a reversal of the trends of economically caused diaspora. Instead of leaving their home communities for economic reasons, Jews were leaving for social and political reasons and emigrating to Israel. They left behind the dominant languages of Europe and adopted Modern Hebrew. Since 1948, the growth of the Israeli economy has militated against widespread emigration to other countries. The youth of Israel have economic opportunity at home and do not need to leave. Israel, unlike many of the nations in the region, has a modern, post-industrial economy. Ironically, a larger threat to the continuation of the language may be the immigration of Arabs seeking economic opportunity.
Finally, the need to know Hebrew for religious reasons as well as the continuous body of Hebrew literature encouraged education and literacy.
We’ve seen that languages are certainly disappearing from the globe at a rapid pace and are people are increasingly being drawn to speak a small number of languages. The consequences of this 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 cultural loss that coincides with the death of a language is incalculable.
While some language death is inevitable, part of the natural cycle of language change, it is the current pace of language death that is significant. This is not inevitable, however. There are steps that can be taken to strengthen the communities of minority language speakers and in the process preserve many of these languages. All that is required is the will, and the money, to do so.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton