The title of this post will no doubt have made you think about whether languages can become extinct or disappear. It may seem strange, but the truth is that yes, they canDo you know how many languages are currently spoken in the world? Around 6,000. And do you know how many of these languages will survive at the end of the century? Less than 3.000. In this post, you’ll learn:
When a language dies
The death of a language is a natural process. Remember that the word language refers to the perfectly developed linguistic system of a country or community. In fact, the death of a language does not take place when the last speaker dies, but rather when the speaker before them dies, since it is understood that a language is a communication tool and that obviously implies the need to have someone to talk to. And, although it may seem surprising, there are languages spoken by as little as 4% of the population
What, then, causes a language to disappear? It is thought that famine, migration and disease are the main reasons for the disappearance of a language. It can also be related to civil conflicts and world wars. The indigenous people of El Salvador, for example, abandoned their cultural practices and their language to avoid getting killed during the Salvadoran peasant massacre in 1932, which targeted the poorest citizens of El Salvador, many of whom were indigenous people.
Traditional beliefs that only vocabulary, grammar or syntax become extinct should be stamped out, as the loss goes much deeper than this. It is through Language that thoughts, ideas, beliefs, desires and passions of a human group are formed, gain importance and become reality. The moment a language becomes extinct, we lose the entire culture that goes with it, the legends, oral traditions, ancient art or work techniques, the mystical and religious beliefs of its speakers. We lose, indefinitely, a piece of humanity.
Someone should do something!
There are languages which existed thousands of years ago but that are now gone. This is not a one-off event or something that is just beginning to be studied now. The UN first examined it in 1994 with the publication of the “Red Book of Endangered Languages”, which showed which languages are threatened, where they are located and the degree to which they are still in use. I don’t want to worry you, but according to UNESCO, humanity loses 14 languages every day. Humanity has lost almost a hundred languages in the last decade. Of those that remain, more than 400 risk disappearance in the next five years. Here you can find a map that shows the extinction phase of languages.
Can anything be done to prevent a language disappearing? Yes, although, as always, this will depend on politics, as good solutions to this problem include education policies that impose the studying of certain languages or dialects to keep them alive and, for example, producing grammar or other books on those languages.
Non-profit organizations such as the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages publish scientific articles, conduct linguistic fieldwork and even create online dictionaries to preserve indigenous languages. The institute adopts a unique approach to language acquisition by organizing digital workshops where local endogenous activists are trained on how to record and edit phrases in their language with the elders of local people. Not only do these language activists gain additional technical skills, but many activists also become highly trained researchers within their region and become local ambassadors of the institute. Since 2005, The Living Tongues Institute has helped create more than one hundred dictionaries containing tens of thousands of words and images.
What is the use of knowing that a language has disappeared? Well, mainly to identify what is happening to languages around the world. Does that mean that English or French are going to disappear? No. Both languages are going to be around for a very long time, so if you need to translate your documents into one of those languages you can request a translation without needing to worry about this.
The new technologies
One of these endangered languages is Icelandic, but is constantly under threat through the use of new technologies. Use of Icelandic has been practically in existent in technology since the year 2000. Digital assistants like Siri or Alexa don’t recognise the language, and it obviously isn’t one of the five languages that a mobile app must translate, meaning that Icelandic people have to understand English to use the technology.
The digital gap also poses a serious headache for languages such as Basque, Catalan, Romanian and Chinese Mandarin. With the so-called ‘Valley’ language domination of the digital sphere, it is thought that these languages will disappear from the digital sphere within three decades, along with Icelandic.
But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. For example, Bolivians are looking to revive the Aymara language via Facebook. Many people believe that if a language isn’t on the web, it doesn’t exist. But language doesn’t die until the last speaker does. So why not translate webpages, books and other information into these languages? In this way, perhaps we managed to preserve the value of these languages and, of course, the culture that goes with them.
Similarly, with the surge in popularity of forums in the 2000s, the Internet became a common place for Yiddish speakers to converse in their language and, over time, the virtual world became the primary destination for Yiddish speakers. Yiddish has made one of the major comebacks of the 21st century. Once spoken by more than 10 million Jews across the globe, the number of Yiddish speakers dramatically decreased due to the Holocaust as the survivors were obliged to assimilate and use the native language to avoid persecution. The use of Yiddish had all but disappeared except in a small number of Hasidic communities.
In addition, in the mass of content that is Twitter, we can find accounts that are instructive about languages, such as @MissTagless, creator of content in Valencian, and @jorgepueyo_95, who claims to get up at 5am twice a week to record a morning newscast in Aragonese. These accounts raise visibility and can help breathe air into dying languages.
Other resource include applications that help us learn languages. Duolingo on its own allows you to learn Hawaiian, Navajo and Scottish Gaelic, three languages in danger of extinction. Without a doubt, technology can cause problems, as in the case of the Icelandic language, but it can also be very helpful.
Some proper names
– Yang Huanyi (1909-2004)
The death of this old woman meant the disappearance of the last person who spoke one of the oldest languages in the world: Nü Shu, known by linguists as the ‘women’s script.’ This Chinese dialect was used by women of different generations as a secret communication between them. At the moment only a few specialised translators are able to interpret the rare remaining documents in this precious language.
– Fanny Cochrane (1834-1905)
Fanny was an aborigine from Flinders islandin Tasmania. This woman became internationally famous for recording songs and legends in one of Tasmania’s unknown aboriginal languages. Thanks to these old recordings, we can still translate old writings in these very old languages.
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