The subject of language death stimulates many differing opinions. Some believe language death is positive and good for the community, bringing people closer by using only a few languages. Others believe it is a phenomenon that should be prevented and with every endangered or minority language that exists today encouraged to be preserved.
There are many proposed reasons for language death, including cultural assimilation, natural disasters, youth, globalisation and movement of people (Brenzinger 1992; Crystal, 2000). But whilst coming across many different reasons as to why languages may die, stigmatisation was what caught my eye. Reading through pages and pages of how a language can die due to its speakers being ashamed to use it made me think twice. Why would anyone be ashamed of their language? Crystal discusses stigmatisation in his book Language Death (2000), and highlights that it is the speakers of dominant languages that are responsible for stigmatising the use of minority languages. He claims that “members [of dominant language] stigmatize the people [of minority languages] in such terms as stupid, lazy and barbaric […] and their language as ignorant, backward, deformed [and] inadequate” (Crystal, 2000, p.84). Comments like this could be deemed very offensive and aggressive, causing some members to defend their language, and others to abandon it. Crystal goes on to say that those who choose to abandon their mother tongue view their language “as a sign of backwardness, or as a hindrance to making improvements in social standing” (2000, p. 84).
One example is from Amna Khaled’s blog Urdu vs English: Are we ashamed of our language? (2011), where she discusses how, although she had never lived in an English speaking country, she uses English in her everyday speech more than her native language, Urdu. She states that “[i]nstead of conversing in Urdu, many of us lapse into English during everyday conversation. Even people who do not speak English very well try their best to sneak in a sentence or two, considering it pertinent for their acceptance in the ‘cooler’ crowd” (Khaled, 2011). As a speaker of Arabic myself, I understand what Khaled is saying here, as it is also apparent in many Middle Eastern countries, with the idea that the more English you use, the more educated and respectable you are. Khaled concludes by saying “Urdu is a beautiful and graceful language and we owe our country the respect it deserves by speaking and portraying our true roots” (2011). Similarly, Stephen Prickett, in his book European Romanticism: A reader (2014), writes of the different languages and dialects that were present in Norway. He states, “[s]hould we […] give up this precious treasure from our past, which our ancestors have kept faithfully throughout their strenuous lives, and left to us like a sacred heritage?” (Prickett, 2014, p.619). Some argue yes, that we should give up on a language that is no longer needed as it is a way of moving forward and developing (BBC, 2010). Prickett however, argues by losing their native language “we lost our fortune and our honor, therefore we lost the language of our fathers” (2014, p.619). He continues to say, “let us put prejudice aside, and not be ashamed to use the language of our own country” (Prickett, 2014, p.619). This type of attitude encourages speakers of minority or endangered languages to take action and implement language death prevention methods.
One example is of the Cypriot Maronite community who recently made efforts to bring back their heritage, language (called Sanna) and culture (Bielenberg, 2013). Brian Bielenberg (2013), in his chapter called ‘Involving youth in planning the renewal of a lesser used language’ attempts to describe why some speakers, especially young speakers, may be ashamed of their language. He states that speaking a language or language variety “different from their friends separates them from their peers” (Beilenberg, 2013, p.180). He explains how Sanna was “often ridiculed, leading many Cypriot Maronite families to promote the learning of Greek in the home from a very young age” (Beilenberg, 2013, p.183). Hale (1998) comments on this issue by believing that the economically dominant culture and society “encourages speakers of local languages to believe that their futures depend on switching from their native language to the dominant one” (p.215). However, after interviewing 24 youths, many of them said they are not ashamed of their language, and see it as their responsibility to keep it alive (Beilenberg, 2013, p.183).
No matter whether you think language death is good or not, I believe no one should feel embarrassed of their native language, but rather those who are stigmatising these minority languages should themselves be ashamed.
NOURA GOMAA, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Bielenberg, B. (2013). Involving youth in planning the renewal of a lesser used language. In M. Karyolemou & P. Pavlou (2013). Language policy and planning in the Mediterranean world (1st ed.). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Pub.