SEAN HARRIS asks ‘ Is it worth caring about language death?’

In the same way that we would mourn the loss of an endangered species like the blue whale or the panda, should we also mourn the death of a language? Many linguists argue that language death is a widespread problem across the globe that we should be striving to prevent. But how exactly does one define language death? Crystal (2000: 11) quite simply states that ‘a language is said to be dead when no one speaks it any more’. To put this into some kind of perspective, Krauss predicted that 90% of the world’s languages will die within a century (Hale et al., 1992). But the question is, should we really bother getting upset about it, or not?

Well, David Crystal, a popular British linguist, certainly thinks so. He believes that all languages are worth saving and gives five reasons for why this is so in his book Language Death (2000). Firstly, Crystal argues that language very much needs diversity as it inspires creativity that leads to not just the creation of new languages, but is something that inspires new movements, trends and fashions in all kinds of different cultures. He goes on to state that language ‘lies at the heart of what it means to be human’ (2000: 33-34), which leads straight into his next main argument, that ‘languages express identity’ (2000: 36). If we do not have a diverse range of languages, then how will all the different cultures in the world express their own unique identities?

Crystal’s third argument is that ‘languages are repositories of history’ (2000: 40), documenting it carefully and ensuring that it survives from one generation to the next. His next argument is that ‘languages contribute to the sum of human knowledge’ (2000: 44); not only historically, but scientifically, philosophically, and of course, linguistically. Crystal goes so far as to claim that ‘Westerners are infants in their knowledge of the environment’ (2000: 47), suggesting that indigenous peoples can provide the answers we seek. Crystal concludes his series of arguments by declaring that ‘languages are interesting in themselves’ (2000: 54), insisting that all languages, regardless of any other factors, are fascinating and important entities that must be preserved.

On the other side of the debate, there are those who would happily watch each and every endangered language die without a second’s hesitation. McIntyre says that one global language would ‘make travel easier, […] international communication more straightforward [and] it would provide more economic opportunities’ (2009: 76). Crystal elaborates upon these views by explaining that some believe ‘that sharing a single language is a guarantor of mutual understanding and peace, a world of new alliances and global solidarity’ (2000: 27), a notion which some may find rather naive. Unfortunately for those that encourage language death, thousands of languages still currently exist.

So, are endangered languages worth being protected? Undoubtedly, my answer is yes. Thankfully, as Dalby (2003: 146) explains, ‘there are 5000 or so languages in the world, and fewer than 200 nation states, [therefore] anyone can see that linguistic nationalism still has some way to go’, which gives us time to act. Nevertheless, it is absolutely crucial that we do something sooner rather than later, or else future generations will not be able to enjoy the rich abundance of culture and knowledge that we do today.

SEAN HARRIS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dalby, A. (2003) Language in Danger: The Loss of Linguistic Diversity and the Threat to our Future.New York: Columbia University Press.

Hale, K., Krauss, M., Watahomigie, L. J., Yamamoto, A.Y., Craig, C., Jeanne, L. M. and England, N. C. (1992) Endangered languages. Language, 68(1), pp. 1.

McIntyre, D. (2009) History of English: A Resource Book for Students. London: Routledge.







One thought on “SEAN HARRIS asks ‘ Is it worth caring about language death?’

  1. Mia Dermawan says:

    Hi Sean!

    Firstly, your blog was interesting and well researched clearly showing that you had put in effort into the reading around the topic. So well done lad!

    I have to say, having a keen interest in language in general – both spoken and written – and foreign languages, I most certainly agree with the views presented by Crystal; of language creating diversity and identity, and therefore for a language to die out and to not be mourned would be a shame. I acknowledge what McIntyre writes about a global language making travel and communication simpler, and I do agree, as obviously to go to another country and to be able to understand everyone and speak the same as everyone, there would probably be less stress and hassle, that is fact. However for an endangered language to die out and to not be mourned and forever lost and not cared about – I don’t think that is good at all.

    I fully support and agree with Crystal about diversity and differences being needed in this world and that language is a means of provision for this. Difference in language is a necessity.

    I also agree with his statement of different languages being a means of creating different identities, and I too see this as a good thing, and something that is, as mentioned before, needed in the world.

    I also just briefly want to say that, in my opinion, despite agreeing with the fact that a universal language will make communications and travel simpler, I can’t help but wonder how lazy it will make people in society become, and how uninteresting the world would be if we didn’t all try to be different and learn about each other’s languages and cultures?

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