Language Death

Language is the most complex and distinctive product of the human mind, an important distinguishing trait between humans and apes, and the human populous. It is the focus of each group's culture, the vehicle of literature, songs and history. Languages die when nobody speaks them anymore and are therefore only alive as long as there is someone else to converse with.

Languages have disappeared in recent millennia as conquered lands have been enveloped by the dominant group's language or they have assimilated into them. Many languages are moribund and now only spoken by older generations and being learned by few, if any, younger generations. This is largely believed to be due to the use of a few dominant national languages in governments, schools, businesses, movies and the Internet.

Language death is a complex issue with estimates of the world's total languages ranging from 6,000 to 10,000, with various reasons explaining why there is such a large difference between these figures. Firstly, the difference may be empirical as estimates are largely based on guesswork. Secondly, uncertainty is apparent due to incomplete surveys and under or over-estimating figures. Census data has allowed for more systematic material to be collated on language. It is also thought that not all languages have been discovered. Researchers believe that among the ‘discovered' languages compiled within the Ethnologue, approximately half of the languages still need a proper linguistic survey to be carried out.

There are contrasting views put forward by researchers in this field as to whether language reduction is better or worse for mankind. A widely held and popular belief is that the fewer languages benefit for mankind. A notion fed by ancient tradition, mythology and Biblical stories is that one common language will assist mutual understanding, enlightenment and peace. Opposing examples include that of monolingual countries of the world having civil wars. Other factors include the choice of language, whereby people in favor of a single language, assume that it will be theirs, and economics of translating languages around the world.

The loss of language is not adversely effective on human life. However, there are several reasons as to why a variety of languages should survive, over a mono-language. One reason is that we need diversity. Another reason is that languages contain the repositories of the culture's history, through words and idioms it uses, providing clues to earlier states of minds of speakers. Language expresses a culture or person's identity, involving dialects, expressions and rhetoric, which is understood and preserved by users of the language. Languages also contribute to the sum of human knowledge, combining identity and history, encapsulating and interpreting human existence.

Language endangerment has always been present as languages have always emerged and disappeared. We understand this from written archives of languages, from inscriptions, clay tablets to documents and electronic data. There are a range of various factors to identify for the reason of language loss. Languages may cease to exist, where the populations whom speak a particular language are in physical danger. These dangers include catastrophic natural causes, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, which wipe out entire communities. Climatic, economic and health conditions are also affective on the habitat, where humans are unable to survive these conditions, such as famine, drought and widespread diseases. Political situations in a country can be the immediate cause of the decimation or disappearance of a community, such as civil war or conflict on an international scale.

People may live, but languages will still die. Languages go into decline and eventually disappear to be replaced by another language. This usually occurs where a dominant culture influences the language change. There are also areas of bilingualism, whereby two languages co-exist in a culture, complementary of each other.

Languages may be gradually eroded until no-one wants to use them, as they may be seen as historical or inferior to the developing world, gaining a sense of negativity. ‘Language murder' occurs from the deliberate attempt by speakers of one language, ousting the language of another. Evidence of this occurs in various points of colonial history. The desirability and usefulness of a particular language is also a prevailing factor which strengthens some languages and reduces others.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Language Death
David Crystal.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages
Daniel Nettle; Suzanne Romaine.
Oxford University Press, 2000
When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge
K. David Harrison.
Oxford University Press, 2007
Language Change: Progress or Decay?
Jean Aitchison.
Cambridge University Press, 2001 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 16 "Language Death: How Languages End"
The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim
Osahito Miyaoka; Osamu Sakiyama; Michael E. Krauss.
Oxford University Press, 2007
Linguistic Genocide in Education, or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights?
Tove Skutnabb-Kangas.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "State Policies towards Languages - Linguistic Genocide, Language Death, or Support for Languages?"
Reclaiming the Local in Language Policy and Practice
A. Suresh Canagarajah.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Language Death Studies and Local Knowledge: The Case of Cajun French"
Language Obsolescence and Revitalization: Linguistic Change in Two Sociolinguistically Contrasting Welsh Communities
Mari C. Jones.
Clarendon Press, 1998
Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics
R. L. Trask.
Routledge, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Language Death" begins on p. 152
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