Why do languages die out? And should we care? JENNIFER CROMPTON looks at language loss

Why do some languages outlive others? What causes a language to die? Should we care if a language dies? These are all questions that come to mind when we think about the topic of language death. Language death is defined as when “a language is no longer spoken by anyone as their main language” (Cambridge Dictionary online). Some examples of languages that are already dead include Latin, Ancient Greek and Ancient Hebrew (The Linguist List).

So how does language death occur? There are many reasons why a language is no longer used by anyone as their native language. One of these reasons is a decline in usage by younger generations. If a language is only used by the older generation, when they eventually die, then there will be no one left to speak the language. As Crystal states, “[i]f you are the last speaker of a language, your language– viewed as a tool of communication – is already dead. For a language is really alive only as long as there is someone to speak it to” (2000, p.2). Also, as bigger, more dominant languages spread, children whose parents speak a minority language often grow up learning the dominant language of that area. The Linguistic Society of America explains that the fate of a language can change in just one generation (Woodbury, A). For example in Alaska, the Yupik Eskimo language was spoken by all the children in one community twenty years ago, but today the children only speak English.

If speakers of a certain language feel that there is a stigma attached to that language, then they may be less likely to speak it. Crystal says that “many languages are being viewed by their speakers as a sign of backwardness, or as a hindrance to making improvements in social standing” (2000, p. 84). Crystal uses the example of the indigenous languages Quechua and Aymara in Peru, whose speakers are swapping to Spanish, the more dominant language (2000, p. 84). The stigmatisation of a language can also go one step further, as some countries have an outright ban on their minority language, such as the ethnic Kurds in Turkey, who by law cannot teach their language (Linguistic Society of America).

Another reason for language death is cultural assimilation. This is when the more dominant culture starts to influence the smaller minority culture until its characteristics begin to show and are adopted in the minority culture (Crystal, 2000, p. 77). Colonisation is one form of cultural assimilation, for example in Australia and North America where the indigenous people were defeated (Crystal, 2000, p. 77), and English eventually became the dominant language of both of these countries.

Most of the debate around language death centres on whether we should care that certain languages are dying and others seem to be more important. One argument that suggests we should care about the death of language is that language has links to cultural identity and knowledge, and these will be lost if the language dies. As K David Harrison writes for the BBC, the last speaker of a language can “tell how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars. How humans adapted to hostile environments, from the Arctic to Amazonia” (Harrison, 2010).

The other side of the debate suggests that if a language dies, it has done so for a reason and we do not need to try and preserve something that is not needed. Another article from the BBC News says that cultural forms are lost all the time and trying to hold on to a dead language “shows a desire to cling to the past rather than move forwards” (BBC News, 2010).

So can anything be done for a language that is already dead? The answer is yes – as shown with the revitalisation of Welsh and Cornish in the UK, and the Native American language of Wompanoag amongst others (Powers, 2014). Many of the successes are due to movements and projects, but Crystal points out that “[t]he conditions have to be right for there to be a likelihood of success: the community itself must want to save its language” (The Guardian, 1999).

It seems that this debate will continue so long as languages keep dying out. Some will feel like it is a huge loss if a language dies, whereas others feel like the world might be an easier place if we all could speak the same language.

JENNIFER CROMPTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

BBC News. (2010). Are dying languages worth saving? BBC Magazine online.

Crystal, D. The Guardian. (1999). Death sentence.

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

Dead Language. Cambridge Dictionary online

Harrison, K. D. (2010). The tragedy of dying languages. BBC News. 

List of extinct languages. The Linguist List.

Powers, B. (2014).  5 inspirational stories of language revitalization success. Languages around the globe

Woodbury, A.  What is an endangered language? Linguistic Society of America.

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