Deaths of Languages

By Diamond, Jared | Natural History, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Deaths of Languages


Diamond, Jared, Natural History


NATURE'S INFINITE BOOK

Six thousand languages are spoken today. By the end of the century, we may be down to two hundred.

In this magazine, the phrase "tragic loss of diversity" usually refers to the current disappearance of biodiversity, with its big, though indirect, consequences for humans. However, another tragic loss of diversity has been going on for a long time, and it has more direct consequences for us: the extinction of our languages.

Language is the most complex and distinctive product of the human mind. Possession of language is the most important trait distinguishing us from apes, and differences among languages constitute the most important distinctions among human groups. In addition to being the focus of each group's culture and the vehicle of its literature and songs, a language provides detailed clues to a people's history, just as do their bones, genes, and faces. Unfortunately, thousands of languages disappeared in recent millennia as their speakers were conquered or exterminated by dominant groups or assimilated into them. Farmers have overwhelmed hunter-gatherers, and strong states have overwhelmed weaker states and tribes. Whatever the original number of languages spoken in the world at the end of the Ice Age (I'd guess tens of thousands), we are down to about 6,000 today.

Most of those 6,000 languages are actually moribund, now spoken only by older people and being learned by few, if any, children. Moribund languages are being eliminated not so much through murder of their speakers (as in the past) as by a more insidious process: the use of a few dominant national languages in governments, schools, businesses, movies, videos, and on the Internet. At this rate, by the end of this century we shall have lost 97 percent of our remaining languages, and barely 200 will survive. That would be a gigantic intellectual and cultural loss for all of us.

This article is about the Ostrogothic and Frisian languages, two members of the Germanic language group-to which English, too, belongs. Ostrogothic disappeared about two centuries ago. Nothing is known of it except for a list of 101 words obtained from one of its last speakers. With the extinction of the Ostrogothic language, the longest-surviving Gothic people finally disappeared from history. The other language, Frisian-the modern language closest to English-still hangs on as a minority language in the Netherlands, backed at the eleventh hour by the resources of the majority Dutch-- speaking government and by the pride of the Frisian people. The story of Ostrogothic exemplifies what we have already lost; the story of Frisian exemplifies what we can still save.

Today, Germanic languages and peoples fall into two groups: North Germanic, alias Scandinavian (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faeroese), and West Germanic (German, English, and Frisian). Around the time of Christ, though, many East Germanic peoples lived on the coast of the Baltic Sea in what are now eastern Germany and Poland. These groups are collectively termed the Goths (and individually known as the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, and Vandals) and were prominent among the socalled barbarians who destroyed the Western Roman Empire. Early in the Christian era, the Goths migrated south to establish kingdoms in North Africa and much of Europe, such as the Ostrogothic kingdom in the Ukraine. But all of those Gothic kingdoms eventually succumbed in battle to assorted other peoples, the last to fall being Spain's Visigothic kingdom, conquered by Arabs in A.D. 711.

For most Gothic languages, our only information consists of a few words quoted by Roman authors. Our sole extensive Gothic text is a partially preserved translation of the Bible into Visigothic, made circa A.D. 340 by Bishop Wulfila, inventor of the twentyseven-letter Gothic alphabet. The translation is doubly significant as the earliest extensive text preserved in any Germanic language. …

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