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
Jenkins, S. (1995, February, 25). The Triumph of English. The Times.
McKay, P. (1994, April, 24). English Rules The Waves. The Sunday Times.
Schmidt, A. (1985). The fate of ergativity in dying Dyirbal, Language, 61(2), 378-396.