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.

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