The death of languages: should we care? THOMAS HOOKHAM discusses the Australian language, Dyirbal

It is said that nothing in life is certain apart from death and taxes. It appears that the former is also possible with our languages. A language dies when no one speaks it anymore (Crystal, 2000, p. 1). Languages are reported to die between one every two weeks (Rymer, 2012) and one every three months (Nuwer, 2014). One language that is currently on the way towards language death is the Native Australian language of Dyirbal.

Schmidt’s study on Dyirbal (1985) showed that the language was nearing extinction. He noted that the language itself was disappearing because the younger speakers were a lot less fluent in Dyirbal than the older speakers (p. 378). For instance, in Dyirbal to describe a big eel you would say ‘qunuii’ (Nettle & Romaine, 2000, p. 54). However, to describe a kangaroo as big you would call it ‘waqala’ (Nettle & Romaine, 2000, p. 54). Schmidt (1985) noted that members of the tribe aged between 18 to 35-year old would use these terms interchangeably to mean ‘big’ (p. 380). Crystal (2000) explains that there are very few new words added to the language. The language that the speakers use becomes much more limited over time (p. 230). Schmidt (1985) also noted that the tribe members that were younger than eighteen could not speak a single sentence of Dyirbal (p. 378).

Schmidt (1985) believed that there were a few reasons why Dyirbal was dying in younger speakers. Firstly, all television and literature in Australia is in English (Schmidt, 1985, pp. 379-380). This meant that Dyirbal children were used to English at a very young age, whilst also creating ‘images and expectations in conflict with traditional Dyirbal culture’ (Schmidt, 1985, p. 379). Another reason is the increased contact with English speakers. The Dyirbal tribe had to use English to trade with European settlers and over time the tribe gradually began to use it amongst themselves (Schmidt, 1985, p. 380). The final reason is compulsory English schooling. The Dyirbal children are taught English in Australian schools and do not have the option to learn Dyirbal (Schmidt, 1985, p. 380). Schmidt (1985) states that compulsory English ‘instils a negative impression of the utility and value of Dyirbal’ (pp. 380-381).

Dyirbal is shown to have all three factors of a dying language – population loss, forced language shift and voluntary language shift. Population loss of the Dyirbal people was shown when their ‘territory was invaded […] and the physical environment was deeply bruised’ (Schmidt, 1985, p. 378). This caused the population of the tribe to plummet. Forced language shift occurs when a dominant group forces a minority group to change to their language. This is shown through the compulsory English schooling that the children receive (Schmidt, 1985, p. 380). In voluntary language shift, a minority group decides themselves to use a dominant language as shown through the Dyirbal tribe gradually using English so they could trade with settlers (Schmidt, 1985, p. 380).

Within the academic circle, most linguists believe that languages deserve to be preserved. For example, Dalby (2003) explained that ‘each language is a different way of looking at, mapping and classifying the world’ (p. 272). Nettle & Romaine (2000) also expressed a similar view: ‘one technology may be substituted for another, this is not true of languages. Each language has its own window on the world’ (p.14). These linguists express the belief that languages have their own intrinsic values as a keystone of their respective cultures.

Outside of academia the view on language death can be quite different. The journalist Simon Jenkins stated that ‘I have always believed that the sooner the world speaks English, the happier and more prosperous it will be’ (The Times, 1995). Jenkins explains that English can be used as a lingua franca between countries to become more economically successful. The linguist Mufwene (2004) claims that ‘[l]inguists concerned with the rights of languages must ask themselves whether these rights prevail over the right of the speakers to adapt competitively to their new socioeconomic ecologies’ (p. 219). He (2004) explains that these communities must adapt to survive, questioning whether linguists only care due to their interest in languages.

In conclusion, although critics like Mufwene make interesting points on the importance of preserving languages, my views align with Dalby and Crystal.  Crystal (2000) states that ‘every language, it would seem, has its Chaucer’ (p. 46). This highlights the cultural loss that humanity may suffer if we focus on establishing ‘socioeconomic ecologies’ (Mufwene, 2004, p.219) over the preservation of minority languages and cultures.

THOMAS HOOKHAM, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



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

Dalby, A. (2003). Language in danger. Chichester, United Kingdom: Columbia University Press.

Jenkins, S. (1995, February, 25). The Triumph of English. The Times.

McKay, P. (1994, April, 24). English Rules The Waves. The Sunday Times.

Mufwene, S. (2004). Language Birth and Death. Anthropol, 33(1), 201-222.

Rymer, R. (2012, July). Vanishing Voices. National Geographic. 

Nuwer, R. (2014) Languages: Why we must save dying tongues, BBC on-line.

Schmidt, A. (1985). The fate of ergativity in dying Dyirbal, Language, 61(2), 378-396.



One thought on “The death of languages: should we care? THOMAS HOOKHAM discusses the Australian language, Dyirbal

  1. Tamsin Taylor says:

    This is an incredibly interesting take on Dyirbal and I certainly agree with your theorist choice. Although there are comments that can be supported on both sides of the argument, Crystal and Dalby have some insightful ideas about language death and they have been applied brilliantly and convincingly in this post. The idea that there are multiple reasons behind language death is something many forget. English itself, although an overpowering language in many ways, is not the only thing to blame for the death of languages and I am glad this is something you have addressed.

    Schmidt’s assessment of the multiple layers of language death is something that can certainly be applied to multiple dying languages. The factors of population loss, forced language shift and voluntary language shift in the death of a language should most definitely be taken in to account as there is rarely one element to blame – although that may be arguable with a cause of population loss.

    The evidence for language loss and death in Dyirbal is quite overwhelming and it is clearly apparent that the younger generation of speakers are limiting the language rather than expanding it. I suppose this can be compared with English and our own younger generation as technology has led to the use of less technical vocabulary and the widening of semantics on existing words.

    The case of Dyribal is perhaps comparable to Bo. Interestingly, the death of Boa Sr, speaker of the Bo language of the Andaman Islands, is said to have broken the last link with the culture as they were the last fluent speaker. (BBC News, 2010) Although others could understand incredibly small parts of the language, the culture was lost as no-one else in the world could speak it fluently. In this case the death of the last fluent speaker has halted the ability for others to re-learn the language or expand on the knowledge they already have forcing them to use other languages to supplement.

    It is rather saddening that the natives in Dyirbal communities are being forced to use English from a young age through their schooling, surely there should be a larger encouragement within the community to learn the language of their culture alongside the languages they deem necessary? Although you support Mufwene stating “humanity may suffer if we focus on establishing ‘socioeconomic ecologies’”, I do wonder what your opinion is on this lack of enthusiasm for the language through forced language shift.

    – Thanks, Tamsin Taylor

    BBC News. (2010). Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India. Retrieved from

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