First it is important to define what ‘language death’ is. The Oxford English Dictionary (2007) defines it as “[d]isappearance of a language, especially where speakers shift progressively to another or others: thus e.g. of many languages in North America or Australia once spoken by people whose descendants now speak only English.”
According to Crystal (2002:19), “[a] middle position would assert 50% loss in the next 100 years […] To meet that time frame, at least one language must die, on average, every two weeks or so.” It is important to bear this statistic in mind as it means in order to start saving languages we must start preserving them now. If we leave this too late then there may not be any languages left to preserve.
One main reason proposed for saving dying languages is that we would lose an aspect of diversity if we lost languages. Nettle & Romaine (2002: 7-10) believe that linguistic diversity is “a benchmark of cultural diversity. Language death is symptomatic of cultural death: a way of life disappears with the death of a language”. This can be seen in languages such as Hupa where there is now only one known speaker living in California. Hupa was the language of the Hupa Indian tribe native to the USA. Perhaps losing this language may mean losing literature such as songs, poems and books or even words and definitions of entities we have never seen or heard of before. Nettle & Romaine (2002) also believe we could lose valuable information about how languages vary and the limits of human language if languages continue to die out.
Not only is losing languages potentially bad for our cultural education and linguistic research but Khan et al. (2015) believe a variety of languages enriches lives overall because of the beliefs, experiences and knowledge we share using it. They claim that “with disappearance of a language there is likely to be a serious loss of cultural legacy and inherited knowledge to the nation and to the world as well”.
Could the use of one language globally for such important aspects of life be killing off other languages, rendering them useless?
Mufwene (2005) discusses the claim that English is ‘a killer language’, powerful enough to wipe out other languages, particularly in Europe. Would using this one language help or hinder us? Benefits of using one language globally are obvious for the people speaking this language; it would be easier to communicate globally, easier to travel or emigrate, the use of media platforms could be shared as well as political discussions being open to everyone with no language barriers (Schulzke, 2014).
Interestingly Marácz (2016, p.32-36) looks further into the idea of using one language in politics. English is currently used as the lingua franca of European parliament which means people use English to communicate if they do not speak the same native language. Marácz (2016, p.32-36) suggests that this has influenced the spread of English to Europe because of its use as a mediator language in government and of successful politicians. Schulzke (2014: 227) calls this use of English to discuss ideas globally “a neutral language” where “mass competence in a single language can also help to ensure that language differences cannot be used as a basis for political exclusion”.
However idealistic this idea of global communication sounds, one language would mean the loss of other languages… and this is already the case.
Perhaps looking at language death in history could help us to decide whether language death is something we should care about. For example, there are many languages that have already become extinct and this has been happening for centuries. A good example is the loss of indigenous languages in Italy when the Romans colonized Europe. Latin overtook indigenous languages because of its use by powerful people in government. Looking back, Latin became an extremely influential and highly respected language which is still respected today. However, even Latin has died out over time and is no longer spoken in our modern society. Does this suggest that even the strongest languages evolve and die out eventually?
It can be seen that we need to make a decision about the future of the world’s languages quickly in order to preserve languages that are dying out. Luckily, linguists have already started recording endangered languages such as the organisations the ‘Endangered languages project’ and ‘UNESCO’. As it stands English is still growing globally and as long as language death is being investigated we can begin deciding the best course of action.
LAURA GALLIMORE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Khan, M. T., Humayun, A. A., Sajjad, M., & Khan, N. A. (2015). Languages in danger of death – and their relation with globalization, business and economy. International Journal of Information, Business and Management, 7(2), 239.