languages dying




Languages Dying. Big Deal.



Right now, someplace on Earth, the last speaker of an ancient language is approaching death. When this person passes away, alas and alack! Another language will be gone!

Actually, there is more than one such person. Languages are blinking out at a breathtaking pace these days. The Great Extinction, some linguists call it.

Ever heard of Jiwarli? I’m not surprised: the last native speaker died in Australia in 1976.

Chinook used to function as the language of trade in the Pacific Northwest, because so many of the region’s Native American tribes spoke it as a second language. Now, not even the Chinook speak Chinook.

In California at least 50 Native American languages are “endangered.” The estimated number of Shasta speakers, for example, is down to zero.

Roughly 6,000 languages were spoken in the world ten years ago.  Ninety percent of them will be gone ten years from now.

Phew! Sounds bad?

Not to everyone. John Miller, writing in the Wall Street Journal, asserts that every time a language dies, it’s time to celebrate, because it means another isolated tribe has joined the modern world.

He fails to mention what’s so great about the modern world, but he does have a point. Terms like “extinction” and “endangered” put the disappearance of languages on the same footing as the disappearance of species. But there is a huge difference.


One world, one language

A single species cannot survive on its own. The thinning down of species signals a threat to life on Earth itself. A single language, however, can do just fine. Calling the disappearance of languages “extinction” sneaks in the presumption that the process should be halted. Let us not take that premise without examination.

After all, fewer languages means more people speaking the same language. That trend leads, in the end, to all humans speaking the same language. What’s wrong with everybody on Earth being able to understand one another? Sounds to me like a key ingredient in any formula for world peace.  Why keep any dying language alive? Does a language have value, per se?

Here’s one main reason to mourn the death of a language. There are things you can express in any given language that cannot be expressed in any other. I say this as one who grew up with two first languages. There are things I can say in Farsi that I can’t express in English. Like what, you ask? I can’t tell you: we’re speaking English.

The opposite is true too, and here I can give an example. In Farsi, the intensifier too does not exist. You can say “much.” You can say “very much.” But you can’t say “too much.” (And note that “too much” isn’t just “very much” taken further: even a tiny amount can be too much—of certain poisons, for example.)

Or consider the Chinese writing system, which is based on characters derived from pictographs. If you’re literate in Chinese, I’m told, you can  see a whole poem at once the way you can with a painting. Clearly, therefore, a Chinese poem can never be fully experienced in English.

In an Australian language called Guugu Yimithir, there is no way to locate an object in relationship to the speaker. You can’t say “Jack is in front of the tree,” because it would be behind the tree to someone else. That sounds pretty limiting, eh? But wait. The syntax and vocabulary of Guugu Yimithir do allow you to identify the absolute position in space of an object. Gasp! How? I don’t know. I don’t speak Guugu Yimithir. Chances are, you don’t either. And we’ll never know, because Guugu Yimithir is one of those languages that is about to vanish from the Earth.






Let a thousand tongues wag

For purely utilitarian purposes, one language may well be all the world needs. There is no end to the things that can be expressed in English—or any language. But language is an expression of culture. Language diversity is a mirror of cultural diversity. If there is any value to different cultures existing in the world, there is a value to different languages existing in the world.

But, hey. One language in common doesn’t have to mean one language in toto. Why can’t everyone speak two languages? Or more? Let all humanity share one language and let 5,999 other languages bloom as well.

Nice plan, but good luck making it work—because language obeys nobody’s plan.

If one language carries all the messages related to work, study, shopping, getting around in public, etc., other languages become luxuries. What are you going to do with French, if you live in America? Yeah, I know, see French movies without looking at the subtitles. Big deal. As soon as a language stops carrying important messages, linguists say, it’s in trouble. Children learn the languages they need, but they don’t pick up extra languages “just for fun.” And languages die when children stop picking them up. All judgments on whether langagues live or die may therefore be moot, becuase languages mirrors underlying social realities. If people blend and merge, so do their languages. Wherever invaders have conquered some land and settled in with the locals, for example, invaders and invaded have ended up speaking the same language. One way or another, two languages become one.

Russian was born this way, when Vikings invaded Slavic speaking areas.

English was born when Germanic speaking Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded the Celtic-speaking islands. Christianity seeping in then gave that German a shot of Latin and turned it into Old English. French-speaking Normans conquered England, but were conquered by its language. Old English absorbed some French words (thereby turning into Middle English) but spit out the rest. So it went…and went. English is already fat on the flesh of languages it has devoured.

Sometimes languages blend so thoroughly that whole new tongues spring forth. In the 1500s, for example, Turko-Mongol warriors swept out of central Asia, through Farsi-speaking regions, and into India. They recruited soldiers from all the areas they conquered. In their army camps, one heard a cacophony of Farsi, Hindi, and Turkic. Soon, however, the soldiers in those camps spoke a single new language blended of three. Urdu, it was called, which just meant “army” in Turkic. Urdu is now the official language of Pakistan.

Given the natural tendency of languages to merge, the disappearance of minority languages seems like an inevitable bi-product of globalization. Doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. Get over it, dude, it’s going to happen. Or is it?


Get together and split

Language has a powerful tendency to branch as well as blend. If you’re going to England, remember not to compliment anyone by saying, “Nice pants!” because over there “pants” means “underpants.” And there are hundreds of usages like that. Two groups of people with the same language and culture got separated by an ocean and a few centuries later they were speaking British English and American English. No one planned it. No one could have stopped it.

Indeed, dialects can grow so far apart that the speakers of the same language eventually become mutually unintelligible. I just visited a small town in Appalachia, and I must tell you, with my West coast accent, I had trouble carrying on a conversation with the cashier at the Wal-Mart there. I wonder how that Kentucky cashier would fare chatting with an English-speaking Hindu from Delhi?

Many full-blown languages, such as Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, did in fact start out as dialects of the same language. But when Spanish and Italian formed, Spain and Italy were so far apart, most people in one place never spoke directly to people from the other place. That’s how dialects keep branching.

The technology monkey wrench

Today, technology might interrupt the process. You can get to an Internet terminal within a day in just about any city on Earth. Even remote villages, from Africa to Afghanistan, have access to satellite TV now. One afternoon last spring, I found myself sitting in a teahouse in a small town outside Peshawar near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, watching a CNN news broadcast in English followed by a punk band shrieking in, well, I guess it was English.

In short, most Earthlings are now in contact with a global stream of language, and that stream is dominated by English. If things keep going the way they are, all humanity may well end up speaking English.

But there is another force at work here too. People resist losing their own language in favor of someone else’s. It doesn’t matter if the other language is more functional for getting along in the world.

That’s because language does more than carry practical messages. It enables a way of thinking unique to itself. This goes way beyond vocabulary—way beyond phenomena like the Inuit having 100 words for snow (which, incidentally, may not even be true.) It goes to the deep structure of a language, the whole how it works. The still-developing brain of the young child hardwires to accommodate the language the child is learning. The syntactical connections of the language reflect the neural connections in the brain. Language and thinking are intertwined. When I switch to speaking Farsi, it’s not what I’m thinking that changes but how I’m thinking.

Language has the power, therefore, to invoke a sense of identity in its speakers. When native speakers of a language begin talking among themselves, their group identity, separate from other groups, comes alive and gains strength.

Forbidden tongues

Not surprisingly therefore, languages don’t just die; they are also sometimes killed, or at least their murder is attempted. That is, rulers who speak a different language from their subjects often take measures to suppress their subjects’ language. In the 19th century, for example, the British government outlawed Gaelic in Ireland.

By the same token, groups who are trying to reclaim a political and cultural identity take steps to preserve their special language. Today, Native American activists in the United States are busy trying to revive Native languages. Native language immersion preschools have sprung up on both coasts. Mary Abbot, director of the California Native Network, says, “By learning the language, the native world view and values begin to re-establish themselves. A whole way of being is encoded in the language.”

But can languages be created? 

In 1887, Polish physician Ludwig Zamenhof perfected Esperanto, a brand-new language built from scratch on rational principles: for example, every letter in Esperanto has one sound. Every sound is represented by the same letter or letter combination. The grammar has but 16 rules, and all the verbs are regular. What’s not to like?

Zamenhoff proposed Esperanto as a global second language and nobody’s first language. He succeeded wonderfully in his second goal: Esperanto, today, is nobody’s first language. Is it anybody’s second language? Esperanto enthusiasts claim that millions of people speak it worldwide. They may be right, but I’ve never met one or met anyone who has met one. As far as I can see, Esperanto remains a curiosity for language hobbyists and one more proof that language can grow like an organism, but cannot be built like a machine.

Linguists try to preserve dying langauges by archiving them. They make dictionaries of the languages. They describe the grammar, record native speakers telling stories, collect books written in the language, even create writing systems for dying languages that have none. One group, the Long Now foundation, has created a “Rosetta disk,” a small nearly indestructible nickel object on which is inscribed, in microletters, 27 pages from Genesis in 1,000 languages—for the benefit of some future linguist who may find the disk someday when most of these languages are dead.

But none of this keeps a language alive. It merely embalms the corpse. A language thrives only if some group of people wants to speak it. That’s why language preservation really comes down to politics.

Gaelic is returning to life, only because some Irish people want to reclaim their Irish identity. Hebrew was nearly a dead language, preserved only in Jewish religious rituals and texts, but now that the state of Israel exists, it is a healthy living language again.

Language is peculiarly impervious to legislation. Maybe someday we will all speak the same language. Maybe we won’t. Whatever happens won’t be the result of anyone deciding what is correct. Language will decide what it will do—and whatever it decides will be correct.