Losing Linguistic Diversity

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), October 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Losing Linguistic Diversity


Byline: The Register-Guard

A way of thinking and a distinctive human culture vanished with the death of Bobby Hogg last week.

The 92-year-old retired engineer was the last man to speak the Scottish dialect called Comarty fisherfolk. A once-living fragment of the linguistic mosaic is gone. Whether it matters and what the effects will be are important questions in the 21st century, when the linguistic landscape is headed for a period of unprecedented change.

Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken in the world; half could be extinct by the end of the century. Among the languages with few living speakers are several in the Northwest, including Kalapuyan and Klamath-Modoc.

Throughout history, languages have vanished when the people who speak them were killed off or absorbed by a stronger or more numerous group. Of the 312 American Indian languages believed to have been spoken in North America when Europeans arrived, more than one-third are extinct - generally because native cultures were crushed or splintered.

Linguistic extinction in the 21st century tends to be less violent, but it is equally hard to resist. Speakers of minority languages find themselves at a political, educational and economic disadvantage. They're immersed in the dominant language through media and commerce, and speaking a minority language may carry a stigma. Governments pursue language standardization programs, believing that linguistic diversity impedes national unity and economic progress. …

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