Language Death

Language Death

Language Death

Language Death

Synopsis

The rapid endangerment and death of many minority languages across the world is a matter of widespread concern, not only among linguists and anthropologists but among all concerned with issues of cultural identity in an increasingly globalized culture. By some counts, only 600 of the 6,000 or so languages in the world are 'safe' from the threat of extinction. A leading commentator and popular writer on language issues, David Crystal asks the fundamental question, 'Why is language death so important?', reviews the reasons for the current crisis, and investigates what is being done to reduce its impact. This 2002 book contains not only intelligent argument, but moving descriptions of the decline and demise of particular languages, and practical advice for anyone interested in pursuing the subject further.

Excerpt

In 1992, linguists attending the International Linguistics Congress in Quebec agreed the following statement:

As the disappearance of any one language constitutes an
irretrievable loss to mankind, it is for UNESCO a task of great
urgency to respond to this situation by promoting and, if
possible, sponsoring programs of linguistic organizations for the
description in the form of grammars, dictionaries and texts,
including the recording of oral literatures, of hitherto unstudied
or inadequately documented endangered and dying languages.

UNESCO did respond. At a conference in November 1993, the General Assembly adopted the 'Endangered Languages Project' – including the 'Red Book of Endangered Languages' – and a few months later a progress report observed:

Although its exact scope is not yet known, it is certain that the
extinction of languages is progressing rapidly in many parts of the
world, and it is of the highest importance that the linguistic
profession realize that it has to step up its descriptive efforts.

Several significant events quickly followed. In 1995 an International Clearing House for Endangered Languages was inaugurated at the University of Tokyo. The same year, an Endangered Language Fund was instituted in the USA. The opening statement by the Fund's committee pulled no punches:

Languages have died off throughout history, but never have we
faced the massive extinction that is threatening the world right
now. As language professionals, we are faced with a stark reality:
Much of what we study will not be available to future generations.
The cultural heritage of many peoples is crumbling while we look
on. Are we willing to shoulder the blame for having stood by and
done nothing?

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