‘Should we try and prevent the death of endangered languages’? asks LAURA GALLIMORE

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

References

Crystal, D. (2002). Language death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Language death. The Oxford English Dictionary (2007). (2nd ed.) OED Online. Oxford University Press.

Marácz, L. (2016). Does Global English Support the Development of Social Europe?. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, European and Regional Studies, 9(1),31-38. 

Moseley, C (2010). UNESCO, Atlas of the world’s languages in danger. R

Mufwene, S. S. (2005) Globalization and the myth of killer languages.  In: G. Huggan & S. Klasen  (eds.) (2005) Perspectives on Endangerment.  New York: Georg Olms Verlag,45.

Nettle, D., & Romaine, S. (2002). Vanishing voices: The extinction of the world’s languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schulzke, M. (2014). The prospects of global English as an inclusive language. Globalizations, 11(2), 225-238. 

The endangered languages project powered by google, the endangered languages project language map.

 

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2 thoughts on “‘Should we try and prevent the death of endangered languages’? asks LAURA GALLIMORE

  1. Isobel Stanford says:

    This was a very interesting piece to read Laura! It makes you think about what we should be doing to preserve languages and also emphasises the fact that this is an area of linguistics that needs to be focused on more in order for a difference to be made. In regards to Nettle & Romaine’s (2002) comment on language death being symptomatic of cultural death, do you agree with this statement? I personally believe that it is hard to say whether parts of a culture or even a whole culture can disappear with a language as cultures are always changing and adapting to new ideas therefore meaning that they do not rely solely on a language. I like that you have used the idea of there being one language used in politics by Marácz (2016) to reinforce the point made by Schulzke (2014) as these two ideas are highly thought provoking. The idea that there could be one ‘universal’ language is one that could be highly debated by those in the linguistic world because it would mean viewing one language as more superior than any other and making the choice as to which is viewed as most superior a very tough one. It is refreshing to see that you have spoken about potential ways that languages can be saved instead of shying away from what can be done to change the negative side effects of language death.

  2. George Morris says:

    It has been said by Wittgenstein (1953, p.223) that if a lion (for example) were to speak English and therefore interact alongside us, the creature’s point of reference and construction of the language would be so crude that it may as well be speaking an entirely different language anyway. Baring that in mind would it necessarily benefit language speakers of the western world, if we resurrected or prevented language death in the east, or even tribal culture and linguistics of the west? Eastern and tribal culture differs so dramatically when compared to that of our own, in the west, that it resembles and echoes the notion that Wittgenstein concepts with the lion theory mentioned above. Would we benefit from learning the basics of tribal communication?

    Laura does suggest however the benefits of resurging dying languages such as linguistic diversity which is expanded upon with reference to Nettle & Romaine: “[L]anguage death is symptomatic of cultural death […]” (2002: 7-10), and therefore, there is suggestion that preservation of dying languages is beneficial to us for educational and historical purpose too.

    It might also be interesting to consider alongside globalisation as a direct cause of language death, modernity and technological evolution could also play part in a world ever-focussed on unifying population via social-media and online communication. Language death may indeed be dismissive of culture, but good for business.

    References

    Nettle, D. & Romaine, S. (2002). Vanishing Voices: The extinction of the world’s languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Wiley Blackwell.

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