Dying Languages

Seven thousand languages are in danger of disappearing.

Arguments in favour of letting Nature take its course:

1. It’s nobody’s business except for the people who are still speaking them.

2. Political considerations and romantic hypocrisy make it difficult to think straight about the subject.

Arguments in favour of trying to prevent their disappearance:

1. Every language, dead or alive, is (or was) the possession of all of humanity.

2. Every language – to use unscientific terms – has its own wisdom and beauty.

3. Every language contains knowledge that can be of practical use.

• • • • • •

On February 5, the BBC published observations by the linguist K. David Harrison, the author of the forthcoming book The Last Speakers: The quest to uncover the world’s most endangered languages.

Some of his points were:

Language revitalization will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades. This push-back against globalization will profoundly influence human intellectual life, deciding the fate of ancient knowledge.

What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, is to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know – which we’ve forgotten or never knew – may some day save us.

We hear their voices, now muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking. Let’s listen while we still can…

The Kallawaya of Bolivia know a lot about medicinal plants. The Yupik of Alaska name ninety-nine distinct sea ice formations and the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer in certain particular ways.

Two dozen language hotspots have now been identified globally and new technologies are being mobilized in their cause.

The lowly text message may lift obscure tongues to new levels of prestige and translation software may help them cross the digital divide. Hip-hop performed in threatened tongues may infuse new vitality.

Comment by Reader A of David Harrison’s observations: “The first micro-etched Rosetta Disc, an archive of over fifteen hundred human languages” should be mentioned.

Comment by Reader B of David Harrison’s observations: “We have, in Europe, a language called the Basque language. It is the most ancient European language, the only pre-indo-European language spoken in Europe and is not related to any other languages.

“Although it is official and widely spoken in the Basque autonomous community in the Spanish state, Basque speakers in other parts of the Basque country, such as Navarre or the French Basque country, suffer constant discrimination from the local authorities in regions where Basque has always been widely spoken.

“My concern is that languages often die out as a result of politics and nationalism (in the Basque case, French and Spanish nationalism are to blame).

“I also believe that it is the EU’s responsibility to ensure that the Basque language survives in the whole Basque historical territory.”

Comment by Reader C of David Harrison’s observations: “You know what? The reason that Cornish, Andaman and even Latin died out as languages was that they were the expression of moribund societies incapable of communicating the intellectual, cultural and social dynamics required for sustained longevity and evolution. Trying to keep these languages ‘alive’ artificially is both futile and condescending.”


9 responses to “Dying Languages

  1. David Schatzky

    Sad, but true. No matter what’s at stake when a language appears to be dying there’s no more point in trying to keep it going than to attempting to keep a brain-dead, 107-year-old human alive through heroic measures. Youth will give voice and expression through any means that is attractive to them. To attempt to direct anyone to preserve a language which doesn’t vitally engage them or which doesn’t feel useful is a lost cause.

    • Needless to say, I agree.

      But I am not the Minister of Indian Affairs in Ottawa, nor the Prime Minister of Israel.

  2. The death of languages is not a new phenomenon but I have never seen an estimate of the number of languages that have died since human languages began. That would be very interesting. Not all “dead” languages are completely dead. They leave an enormous influence on their progeny, e.g., Latin. They may be “dead” but they won’t lie down.

  3. Did the author estimate how many speakers are necessary for a language to be self-sustaining? The number may increase to survive in a world of open communications, where other more popular languages tempt conversions (I almost typed conversations, which would not have been wrong.)

    In a self-contained self-supporting society, the number may be lower.

    But the Dutch, most of whom speak other languages almost depressingly well, seem to maintain their own – so: 4 million is OK? Ditto Danes and Norwegians… But 4000? 400?

    Can one make a language migrate to non-native speakers when the native speakers have no economic, political or cultural power to transmit it? In other words, once a language falls below the minimum required for self-sustenance, it is pretty well hopeless to revive it by transmitting it to others. People have to have a good reason to live in a language even part of the time. One good reason is that it is one’s mother tongue – but if it’s not, the argument becomes harder.

    Too bad, though.

    Is there a moral element somewhere? i.e. have speakers of thriving languages done something bad in having their language survive? Or does that depend on the circumstances – imperial enforcement of languages, or national policy (that spreads Mandarin in Chinese at the expense of the many other tongues spoken in that nation), vs open communications, cultural appeal, economic need (that need not be the result of imperialism or colonialism in every case, I think.)

    • Oh – why did I raise this subject? I can’t answer any of your questions. I tend to take a laissez-faire attitude.

      I am not wkorking for the BBC, which considers it its mandate to keep Welsh and Gaelic alive.

      Nor for Canada’s Aborinal Network that also does what it can for several aboriginal languages.

      Nor for the CBC’s Northern Service that does what it can for the Inuit.

      But I did on one occasion accept a free lunch from a group of Yiddish speaking people.

  4. What about Latin and Ancient Greek? The native speakers are dead but “civilization” still has an interest in preserving them. So is the debate merely about the oral version of languages, and especially about oral languages that have no native written form? (I understand that Inuit languages attained written form through the intervention of outsiders.)

    • See my reply to John Greoory.

      I think you are right in making a distinction between oral and written languages.

      There was a time, not long ago, when a gentleman had (at least had to pretend) to know Latin and Greek and sprinkle his conversation with appropriate quotes.

      A degree in classics from Oxford and Camberidge opened the doors to the Foreign Ofice. And to the Department of External Affairs. I suspect, until the sixties.

      (But not to tthe State Department, probably).

      In the late 19th century, debates in the Hungarian Parliemant were conducted in Latin to avoid speaking German, the language of the hated Habsburgs.