Endangered Languages - Lost Worlds

By Ostler, Nicholas | Contemporary Review, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Endangered Languages - Lost Worlds


Ostler, Nicholas, Contemporary Review


ON the best current estimates, the human race is losing two of its languages every month. There are now about 6,500 left.

This is no small thing, for every one of those languages is the expression of a unique world-view. We are not talking about dialects here: each one is a separate way of speaking, such that only those brought up with it can truly understand it. Each one of those world-views has formed the lives of over a million people, for any language must have existed for thousands of years, just to become a separate language. So each language embodies the memory of hundreds of generations: and so, when the time comes that a language is lost, the community of speakers is in very truth a shadow of its former self: each of them bears an immense burden of responsibility, keeping open the pathways of a million ancestors' thoughts, almost alone.

Nevertheless, being among the last speakers of your language has never been such a common plight. 1,700 of the world's languages are listed as being down to fewer than ten speakers, most of them in Australia and North America. Things are moving very fast in our generation. According to Bob Dixon, in 1963 the Dyirbal language in northern Queensland was spoken by the whole community over the age of 35, amounting to 100 people. Now only 6 people over 65 know it. Tony Woodbury reports that in the village of Chevak, Alaska, in 1978, almost everyone spoke Chup'ik, a dialect of Yup'ik Eskimo; by 1996 it had died out among school children.

Here in Europe, even though the number of languages per unit of area is much lower than in any other continent (so there are fewer languages to lose) we still see the same phenomenon: Manx, the language of the Isle of Man, lost its last native speaker in 1974; and in a survey of Breton undertaken in western Brittany in 1997 (TMO-Quest), 20 per cent of the population said they spoke Breton - but only 6 per cent of those under 40 said they spoke it; and less than 1 per cent of those under 20.

The poignancy of these losses has never been to the fore in the minds of many speakers of widespread languages, when they hear that smaller languages are going out of use. Once there was the triumphalism of Empire that justified the loss. Antonio de Nebrija, presenting the first grammar of Spanish to Queen Isabel in 1492, wrote it could be used by 'those many barbarous nations of foreign language put under the Spanish yoke, to receive the laws which the conqueror imposes on the conquered and with them our language'. (Preface, folio 3 verso.) In 1770, with an Empire at his command that Nebrija could never have imagined - since whole new continents had been discovered in the interim - the Spanish King Carlos Ill yielded to the urging of the Archbishop of Mexico, and issued a Royal Decree banning the different languages used in the Americas and requiring sole use of Spanish.

The same effect could arise from enthusiasm for Europe's science as much as its religion. The East India Company was committed by its Charter Act of 1813 to promote a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British Territories in India. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay ensured that this was interpreted as the promotion of European literature and science, and the medium of Indian education henceforth should be English; support was withdrawn from the indigenous Sanskrit.

Nowadays, the same trend is defended on more pragmatic, even utilitarian and humanistic grounds. 'Think of the convenience', say the apologists for large languages; 'how much easier it will be for people to communicate, and share their insights with one other'. They point to the fact that cultural and economic aspirations play a big part, nowadays, in people's voluntary flight from the language of their homes to Spanish, French and above all, English.

There is the example, famous among linguists but typical of attitudes to language all over the world, of one speaker of Dahalo, a language spoken by a few hundred people in rural Kenya. …

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