On the death of language (a plea for preservation)

At this moment in time, the vast majority of human languages are already dead. Linguists have estimated the existence of 31,000 languages in all of human history, of which approximately 6,000 still exist today, producing the conservative estimate that 81% of all languages have become extinct since the beginning of time. What is more worrying for linguists, however, is the present rate of language extinction: over half of all human languages currently spoken around the globe have fewer than 10,000 speakers, officially classifying them as endangered. Furthermore, many estimate that 90% of all spoken languages today will have become extinct by 2050, meaning that on average, the rate of language death is around 2 per week. But what does it mean for a language to die? And why should this matter?

Firstly, a key distinction demands to be made: a language that is dead, such as classical Greek or Latin, is defined as one that is no longer spoken on a quotidian basis, retaining no native speakers. This of course does not mean it is not still in use, as illustrated by the ongoing instruction of classical Latin in educational institutions for example, or by its use in ecclesiastical form among the Catholic clergy in liturgy- in contrast to extinct languages, which often leave no recorded trace. Unlike Latin or Greek, extinct languages do not undergo evolution into other languages, as ancient Greek did into its modern form, or as vernacular Latin did, almost phylogenetically, climaxing with its florescence into the rich Indo-European linguistic delta we now call the family of Romance languages. Hence, a dead language such as Latin can in this way remain known- recorded, conserved, taught- breathing within words still spoken, an echo of great Empires and emperors and poets, living in the etymological imprints of words, the whispers of names- of medical and legal nomenclature and Linnaean taxonomy- thus preserved; whilst extinct languages die an irrefutable death- to be no longer spoken, known, or heard by anyone again.

Much like a species, the classification of a language as endangered arises when there remain only a small number of its autochthon speakers. Due to the salient lack of a written form in most indigenous and endangered tongues, this results in an increased probability of its potential extinction. As the endangered language teeters precariously on the brink of annihilation, the number of its speakers dwindling to none, its classification can be categorised into varying levels of endangerment; when not a single of its native speakers remains alive to prolong it, it is then extinguished, and classified as extinct- with no recorded form left to conserve.

There are many causes of language death, and although linguistic death has been an ongoing occurrence throughout human history, its present rate is notably accelerated- which many attribute to modern phenomena such as globalisation and neocolonialism. However, other causes can also include genocide, war, natural disaster, famine, and disease, as well as anything else that can result in the total erasure of a population of indigenous speakers.

Moreover, political oppression, as well as cultural hegemony or marginalization, can also result in the death of a language, often through assimilatory education; as indigenous peoples are subjugated to the rule of a dominant political or economic power, they are generally forcefully incentivised to abandon their native languages in favour of the adoption of the linguistic and cultural traits of their colonisers, often in order to gain access to education or political agency, as cultural imperialism hegemonises and assimilates entire cultures into its depths, subsequently resulting in marked glottophagy (from the Greek glotta, meaning “tongue,” and phagein, meaning “to eat”). This is the most common cause of linguicide, and leads to the noteworthy secondary effect of social stigma: when the monolithic language spoken by a dominant power acts as the key to employment or education, indigenous populations may consequently come to associate their own native languages with negative notions such as poverty and illiteracy, desiring to learn the new tongue due to its connotations of modernity and social advancement, in order to be absorbed into a new civilization or societal structure- thus leading to the endangerment of their autochthonous language. The systematic oppression of indigenous peoples can also result in a catalysed version of this process: when languages are altogether prohibited in a conscious attempt to promote a single national culture, via the erasure of minority languages within public spheres such as schooling systems or politics.

Attitudes to language death vary greatly; the value of linguistic multiplicity is one that is often much debated. Many linguists regard the death of language as something that is tragic- as a loss of intellectual and cultural diversity, akin to the loss of biodiversity that transpires from species extinction. However, others have proposed that language death is a natural process, simply a part of human cultural development, and that interference or attempts to slow down language extinction are therefore not necessary. Some have even gone so far as to argue the benefits of language death in the modern world, regarding linguicide as a symptom of modern advancement- as a form of empowerment enabling many indigenous peoples around the world to gain access to the Anglophone world and its western job market and developed capitalistic economies via shared, universal languages, such as English.

In Judaeo-Christian belief, the biblical tale of The Tower of Babel recounts the story in which God cursed humanity with linguistic multiplicity- a confusion of tongues- as numerous languages furcated from one. Leaving aside the question of whether this hypothesis of linguistic monogenesis is a valid one, this biblical tale is nonetheless used as a paradigm by some, illustrating the confusion and social division that occur as a result of language barriers, separating peoples and hindering human communication. From this argument, it can be debated that a monolingual world would perhaps be a more peaceful one, and that a quest for linguistic universalism could produce a less belligerent human population in which communication and understanding could take place regardless of ethnicity or cultural identity, reducing the incidence of racial prejudice and ethnic conflict that seem to stem from the prevalent fundamental fear arising from phenotypic differences.

But what of the inherent value of language? Can a language be considered intrinsically valuable? Or is the death of language really a blessing in guise?

To answer these questions, it must first be conceded that the acquisition of such “universal” languages as English is indeed valuable in modern society. English can often be seen as a kind of standardised, ubiquitous language- the language of science, business, global politics and popular music. It is in fact true that, as the official language of more countries than any other language, English has become what can be referred to as the “default language”- spoken by 85% of Europeans as a second language, and by more than 359 million people worldwide. From this perspective, it becomes easier to see why English appears to be the only requisite for functional participation in the modern world. However, proficiency in English does not necessitate the death of another language- the two are not mutually exclusive. One can learn English whilst still maintaining their native tongue in the interest of language preservation, thus rendering this argument obsolete.

Moreover, the lasting peace it is postulated a monolingual world would bring is not unequivocal. In fact, many of the major conflicts in recent decades have transpired in monolingual countries, such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Rwanda, Northern Ireland and Burundi, as well as the many civil wars that have ravaged great monolingual powers. From these numerous examples, it can be seen that it takes much more than a shared language for a lasting peace among people to be achieved. Words, regrettably, cannot vanquish weapons.

Having made this rebuttal, why then should attempts to impede language death be made?

The reason for this, I believe, is simply that language holds intrinsic value. To illustrate this notion, the following analogy can be made: much as genetic variation within a species heightens a species’ chance of survival (in accordance with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection), linguistic diversity can be seen as equally important- as a central part of human evolutionary theory. Due to the fact that cultural diversity- tantamount to genomic variation- is a prerequisite for the successful development of human civilizations, the preservation of languages is consequently indispensable, since languages act as vectors for human culture, and as conduits of human heritage; encapsulated within languages are the histories of entire communities, as well as large parts of a people’s cultural identity- as significant as a people’s cuisine or art form. As the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “every language is a temple in which the soul of those who speak it is enshrined.”

Subsequently, just as preserving an endangered species is crucial in the conservation of biodiversity, to preserve a language is to preserve a crucial part of human diversity- to conserve a small part of what makes us human, and to allow for the propagation of greater cultural and intellectual diversity into future generations. Without linguistic diversity, cultural diversity would be lost, and our world would become monolingual and monochromatic- a macrocosmic homogeneity.

Furthermore, languages are also intellectually and scientifically valuable. A language can be seen as a body of knowledge in itself- of folk songs and stories and idiomatic expressions, an incessantly evolving spoken record of human knowledge, constantly being transmitted from one person to another, across minds and across decades. Thus, when we lose a language, we also lose all the information recorded within it, such as the early history of an indigenous people, or the names and medicinal properties of flora and fauna known by a tribe.

Additionally, we lose the information coded within a language. Languages are essentially rhetorical systems of communication, consisting of several verbal components, and varying in terms of syntax and structure. As a consequence, studying the architecture and formation of languages can give us valuable insight into human cognition, as well as the mind’s capabilities of assembling words and interacting with other beings. These “rules” within languages, to which its speakers- whether consciously or unconsciously- subscribe, delineate the boundaries of the human capacity to interpret and produce language, governing the ways in which we communicate. In this way, a language can be seen as a reflection of human consciousness, and its death as a loss of this insight into the way our own minds operate, rendering us oblivious to the full capacity of our own cognition.

Languages are more than just a means of communication. The same linguistic structures capable of giving us insight into the processing capacity of our brains, via the delineation of the way we think, also mean that languages can be seen as lenses, through which the world can be interpreted in a plethora of nuanced and diverse ways. Studies have shown that there are slight differences in the way we think based on what languages we speak, often as a result of linguistic structures, such as grammatical principles, governing our thinking processes. For example, there exists no Russian word for “blue”; the colour blue is simply not an adjective in Russian. Instead, the specific shade of blue must be specified for the purpose of description. Consequently, Russian speakers are 124 milliseconds faster at identifying a particular shade of blue than English speakers are.1 This phenomenon, termed the principle of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, albeit negligible numerically (and quite controversial in the linguistic world), is nonetheless important. Those 124 milliseconds substantiate the idea that human minds can be shaped by language, that human cognition can mould itself to linguistic structures, producing a measurable, quantitative and morphological effect on our world views- language acting as the fabric of thought itself. Ergo, when a language dies, a way of thinking dies with it.

Moreover, languages are undeniably beautiful. There is a certain element of wonder and infatuation in the discovery of something as rich and complex as a new language. It is this admiration that motivates students through the frustrating hours of rote study and the navigation of alien linguistic landscapes, driving them to the brink of exasperation over their own abilities, hesitating and fumbling through the monotonous mechanics of grammar and syntax, and the disciplinary drilling of incessant verb conjugation tables. But the real excitement comes as the language begins to take form; words once routinely memorised become coherent sentences with meaning and expression and thought, ink from paper, heart to tongue. Sounds once seeming lost in the syncopation of guttural sounds and glottal stops suddenly seem natural, euphonic. One begins to sensitise themselves to the music of words: the melodic poetry of Italian; the soft, rich tones of French; the elegant, rhythmic cadences of Japanese.  It becomes more tangible than mere characters on a page, bursting into colours and smells and people- a gift of fluid expression enabling one to freely talk, and converse, and laugh with people who would otherwise perhaps seem separate- unfurling itself in one’s subconscious, rooting and moulding itself until its presence can no longer be felt, only expressed. As Charlemagne once said, “to have another language is to possess a second soul.”

But unlike paintings or historical artefacts, when a language dies, it leaves no trace. Art can be conserved in museums and galleries for years to come, canvases carefully protected beneath layers of methyl cellulose and chemical preservatives; but words leave no archaeological trace when they die. A language, post-mortem, is lost forever. When its words are no longer spoken, swallowed by time, a part of our rich tapestry of human experience is eroded from all recorded history. Hence, if we are to preserve this crucial part of our humanity, we must preserve endangered languages.

1Winawer, Witthoft, Frank, Wu, Wade, Boroditsky, Russian Blues reveal effects of language on colour discrimination, 2007
















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