Near Extinction

By Kramer, Gina | Harvard International Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Near Extinction


Kramer, Gina, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Over the past century, thousands of languages have approached extinction as their populations have increasingly adopted the more "universal" languages of Chinese, Spanish, and English. As the many unforeseen negative effects of globalization surface, efforts are being made to combat what is perhaps the most pervasive and least palpable consequence - that of language extinction. Certain academic efforts have been initiated to slow the trend of linguistic homogeneity. Applying one facet of globalization to solve the problem it has helped to create, the University of Tokyo scholars have created an internet database of information about endangered languages.

Text:

Preserving Dying Languages

Langue. Lengua. Lingua. Language. Expressed in any tongue, shared language fosters cultural identity and facilitates a sense of community among its speakers. However, the contribution of language to a local society often goes unnoticed until that language and its corresponding cultural legacy faces extinction.

Over the past century, thousands of languages have approached extinction as their populations have increasingly adopted the more "universal" languages of Chinese, Spanish, and English. This globalization of communication has resulted in linguistic homogenization; the ten most common languages in the world are now spoken by 49 percent of the world's population. This process has been accelerated by the infiltration of television, print, film, radio, and the internet into previously isolated cultures, a transition that has connected disparate regions of the globe by replacing native tongues with global ones. As the many unforeseen negative effects of globalization surface, efforts are being made to combat what is perhaps the most pervasive and least palpable consequence-that of language extinction.

Papua New Guinea, with over 1,300 distinct indigenous languages, many of which are approaching extinction, exhibits the full spectrum of language extinction, ranging from the endangered Budibud to the nearly extinct Bilakura. One Papua New Guinean language names birds by mimicking their calls; another, called Olo, has 40 metaphors for "heart." Rotokas uses only 13 phonemes (the basic units of sound) while Yele uses 96. All of these forms of communication are unique and idiosyncratic and are in danger of becoming extinct due to globalizing pressures. Douglas Whalen, a Yale University linguist and president of the Endangered Language Fund, labels each disappearance "a cultural disaster" that shows a global lack of respect for disparate perspectives on the world. Given the relatively low cost attached to a solid study of one language by collegial or institutional groups US$100,000 or less according to a UNESCO projection-much of the reason for linguistic decay seems driven more by inaction than by fiscal constraint.

Certain academic efforts have been initiated to slow the trend of linguistic homogeneity. Applying one facet of globalization to solve the problem it has helped to create, University of Tokyo scholars have created an internet database for the storage and documentation of information about endangered languages, a weighty task given that a mere 1,500 of the 6,000 endangered languages have been adequately studied. Meanwhile, the Summer Institute of Linguistics has been translating the Bible into the world's less popular tongues, including many of the languages of Papua New Guinea.

Attempting to correct past negligence in a more formalized manner, during the Seminar on Linguistic Policies held in 1996, UNESCO Director General Federico Mayor Zaragoza issued a call for "a report describing our [linguistic] wealth and explaining the problems affecting languages. …

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