Why are languages disappearing? The most fundamental reason is increased contact among formerly isolated human societies. Languages need isolation to develop and to maintain their distinctive characteristics. When isolation ends, local languages tend to disappear along with traditional ways of life.
Many indigenous peoples and linguists are working to halt this trend, which threatens to diminish the world's cultural and linguistic heritage. Much of a society's history and culture is contained in its language. To lose an ancestral language is to weaken the links to the ancestors themselves. As languages disappear, a wealth of culture, art, and knowledge disappears with them. The world's many languages also offer anthropologists a unique resource for studying how humans spread across the Earth. Much of what is known about the historical movement of human beings comes from the study of languages that were spoken by ancient peoples of the Earth.
Assessing Language Endangerment
The precise number of endangered languages worldwide is difficult to ascertain, largely because the distinction between separate languages and dialects is not always clear. (A dialect is a version of a language that differs in pronunciation, grammar, and/or vocabulary). Determining whether the speech of a group of people is a dialect of a language, or has changed enough to be considered a distinct language, is a matter of convention as much as linguistics.
Dialects of English, for example, may vary slightly in pronunciation, as with the difference between speech in New York City and Boston, Massachusetts. Or dialects may differ radically, as between speakers in the Scottish Highlands and those in the mountains of Appalachia in the United States. The latter dialects may be as different as Spanish and Portuguese. However, convention holds that the far-flung English dialects are part of a single language, while Spanish and Portuguese are separate languages.
Linguists have yet to acquire good descriptions of the dialects of most languages. Even if this information were available, it would be impossible to draw a clear line between all languages and their dialects. Sociopolitical factors inevitably play a role. German and Dutch, for example, are national languages, but some Low German dialects of northern Germany are mutually intelligible with some dialects of Dutch. On the other hand, Chinese is often characterized as a single language even though it encompasses many dialects that are mutually unintelligible and are as different as English, Spanish, and French.
Still, linguists generally agree that the world's 6 billion people currently use more than 6,000 languages. The distribution of these languages around the world is surprisingly uneven. About half of the total world population speaks one of ten languages: Mandarin Chinese has 836 million speakers; Hindi, 333 million; Spanish, 332 million; English, 322 million; Bengali, 189 million; Arabic, 186 million; Russian, 170 million; Portuguese, 170 million; Japanese, 125 million; and German, 98 million. The people who speak these languages occupy a great deal of the Earth's livable surface. Most languages, however, are spoken by 10,000 or fewer people.
The greatest linguistic diversity is found in regions that sustain large populations, but where geographic features help keep groups of people apart. In the area of greatest linguistic variation, the island of Papua New Guinea, towering mountains and dense jungles create isolated pockets of various tribes, with about 1,000 distinct languages spoken by 4.6 million people. The islands of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean are home to about 200,000 people, and the Vanuatuans speak 109 different languages.
In the northeast African country of Chad, which stretches into the Sahara, 127 languages are spoken by the nation's 7.4 million inhabitants. Much of Chad's desert population is divided into small nomadic and seminomadic groups scattered across a vast, remote area. Experts believe that many of these groups have retained their linguistic and cultural diversity because of their relative isolation: They have remained largely untouched by the nation's political system, state-sponsored education, and mass communications.
Linguists divide languages into three categories by status: healthy, endangered, and extinct. A healthy language is one that is currently being learned by children as a first language. Healthy languages are generally used in all walks of life-at home, in school, at work, and in other private and public settings.
Languages that are endangered are further divided into various levels of endangerment. In the first level of endangerment, in which a language is still considered healthy, the percentage of children who speak the language typically falls below the percentage for adults. If parents stop-or are forced to stop-teaching their children their native tongue, the language may rapidly become severely endangered, the next level of endangerment. A sudden shift toward severe endangerment has occurred with many Native American languages and with European languages such as Breton in northwestern France.
The most endangered languages are called moribund. A moribund language still has native speakers, but it is not being learned by children; often just a few elderly speakers remain. Reviving a moribund language may require extraordinary efforts, including documentation, analysis, and intensive language instruction. Languages now classified as moribund include the aboriginal Nyulnyul language in Australia, the Native American Osage language in the United States, and the Finnic tongue of Livonian in Latvia. There are probably about 400 moribund languages worldwide.
These dying languages may be useful for communicating with older generations. However, they generally lack the widespread usage needed to justify the effort to learn them. Children are efficient language learners, but they also learn quickly which language tools get them ahead and which do not. They will not learn a language simply because their parents or grandparents wish them to; they learn a language to use it.
An extinct, or dead, language is one with no living native speakers. Dead languages include the Sumerian language, used by peoples of the kingdom of Sumer in Mesopotamia, and Oscan, a language of ancient Italy. Sometimes a dead language can be brought back to life. Hebrew, an old Semitic language that died out in the 2nd century BC, was revived as a vernacular tongue in the 19th and 20th centuries; it now serves as one of Israel's two official languages. The modern language is based in part on the ancient texts of the Jewish Bible (or Old Testament), a collection of documents written largely in biblical Hebrew. The vast majority of languages do not have a written form, however, making this type of resurrection impossible should the language die out.
What Is Being Lost?
The death of a language is likely to be felt most acutely by the people for whom the language is ancestral, but the loss has profound implications for the larger world as well. For an indigenous people, the death of a native tongue can be experienced as a crushing loss of cultural identity, because language is one of the most obvious means of expressing one's association with the group. In addition, oral histories passed on in a certain language provide the foundation for the unique worldview of a people, and losing the language usually means losing the worldview as well. Entire histories may be lost when oral traditions die. The sounds, rhythms, and poetry that made the language unique may be gone forever.
From a larger perspective, the loss of a language is incremental, much as with the disappearance of an animal species. Will humanity be able to carry on with one language fewer? Surely so, but the world's cultural diversity will be diminished and made less rich. If languages are windows to the mind, then there is one less pane to look through.
Important clues to human history are buried in languages. The origin and dispersal of modern humans is a hotly debated topic among anthropologists. Some of the most interesting data in this debate come from reconstructing the family tree of languages scattered across the world. The relationships among languages are still poorly understood, but they have yielded key insights into language evolution and early human migration. For example, they suggest that human language began about 100,000 years ago with a single language.
This theory is called monogenesis. Many linguists believe the first language developed in East Africa and gradually spread northward to Asia and then to other parts of the world. As humans migrated, this language began diverging into a wide variety of distinct languages. By constructing a family tree of languages, scientists can shed light on the historical movement of peoples. However, many important relationships among migrating human populations may never be known because key languages and cultures have disappeared.
Valuable knowledge about the natural environment is often captured in local languages. Scientists looking for medicinal plants have learned that the native names for various species can be helpful in determining which plants might yield useful substances. For example, the Khanty, a seminomadic people living near the Ural Mountains in western Siberia, know the names and medicinal purposes of many species of mushrooms and tree fungi that grow only in this region. The Khanty have shared some of this knowledge with scientists, and the mushrooms have yielded useful medicines.
Ideas and attitudes are expressed differently in different languages, and the act of borrowing from one language to another helps people develop new ways of looking at the world. In the Siberian language of Tuvan, for example, snakes are called "ground fish," suggesting that snakes are similar to fish but do not live in water. No such connection is made in the English language. In another example from Tuvan, a 14-year old person is not described as "14 years old," as in English, but as "fifteening." This expression, which may strike English speakers as strange, turns a number into a verb to refer to the next age a person will be.
The English language is continually enriched by borrowing non-English words for concepts that lack specific English names. The Spanish word machismo, for example, is widely used to mean "an exaggerated display of masculinity." In addition to adopting existing words, English speakers sometimes borrow ways of creating words or phrases from other languages. For example, one might say "pizza-schmizza" to show disdain for pizza using a word-formation rule borrowed from Yiddish, a now endangered language.
Languages differ in the sounds they use, and some sounds are spoken in very few languages. The Khoisan languages of southern Africa, for example, appear to be the only languages that use clicks as everyday speech sounds. In English, such sounds are used for showing disapproval-the tsk tsk sound-but they are not a part of the language. This unique form of speech could disappear forever if the few existing languages that use clicks vanish.
Perhaps the most important loss that occurs as languages die is the native right to choose which language to speak. Some groups of people may decide they want to use a majority language to better their circumstances. However, many groups do not have this choice; they are forced to speak a majority language because their original languages are rapidly dying off or becoming moribund. For this reason, many people are working to preserve endangered languages.
Why Languages Die
Languages have disappeared throughout history, but the scale of language death in modern times is unprecedented. Linguists estimate that about half the world's languages died out in the 500-year period from 1490 to 1990. A variety of factors contributed to this trend of language extinction.
Historically, the main cause of language extinction has been the movement of people from one region to another. Humans have always migrated, seeking more favorable lands or fleeing adverse conditions, and they often move into territories already occupied. In some cases, as in India, distinct linguistic and cultural groups coexist for centuries. More typically, the dominant group displaces the weaker one, either by making the people move, by forcing them to use the new language, or by killing them off.
In Western Europe, for example, all languages are related with the exception of Basque, which is spoken in north central Spain and southwestern France. Linguists believe Basque is the last of many languages that once existed across Europe and were forced out by the arrival of Indo-Europeans beginning about 2000 BC. Indo-European languages adopted few Basque words, if any, suggesting that the groups did not peacefully coexist for any length of time.
Government policies have also contributed to the decline or death of many minority languages by restricting their use. For example, the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries often took children away from their Native American parents and sent them to boarding schools, where they were forced to learn English. Children from different tribes were typically grouped together so English would be their only common language. Only about half of the 300 indigenous languages spoken in North America when the Europeans first arrived are still in use. Australia enacted similar policies to assimilate Aboriginal peoples. In the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), many indigenous populations across the nation's vast expanse were subjected to Russification programs during the 1940s and 1950s. These programs sought to teach children the Russian language and Russian cultural norms at the expense of their native languages and identities.
Efforts to limit language diversity are still common in some parts of the world. For example, the southeastern African nation of Tanzania encourages people to abandon their local languages for Swahili, which is widely spoken and officially sanctioned. This policy, like others in place in East Africa, is designed to encourage a sense of national identity in an ethnically and culturally diverse country.
Even nations that do not actively seek to hasten the demise of local languages typically implement a range of policies that encourage language uniformity. All nations, for example, limit the number of languages that may be used in official proceedings. In India, where more than 350 languages are spoken, only 2 are nationally sanctioned: English and Hindi. Only a few hundred languages receive official recognition around the world.
One reason most nations officially sanction just one or two languages is cost. It is simply less expensive to raise armies, collect taxes, and provide basic social services using a few languages, rather than many. Even when the will to preserve minority languages is present, the cost of providing government services or educational materials in multiple languages can be significant.
The extended reach of mass media, such as satellite television beamed to the most remote corners of the globe, encourages the spread of a few chosen languages. The Internet offers people around the world information and entertainment, but most materials are available only in the most common languages. Minority language communities must therefore adopt the language of the majority to learn about the world.
Perhaps the most important cause of language extinction is the decision of native speakers to shift to a majority language because it offers more prestige and economic opportunities. Immigrants in the United States are often proud of their ability to speak English and even prouder of their children's native command of the language. Seeking a better life, some Native Americans in Latin America are discarding their local tongues for Spanish, and indigenous peoples of Africa are adopting French, English, or Swahili.
Halting the Decline
Over the last 30 years of the 20th century, awareness of the linguistic and cultural roots of minority peoples increased remarkably. Grassroots organizations dedicated to preserving indigenous languages arose around the globe, and many governments came to recognize the problems faced by minority language communities. Much of this concern is tied to human rights; language is often recognized as a component of those rights. In 1996 language-rights specialists and organizations from around the world signed a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights in Barcelona, Spain. These individuals and groups are currently working to ensure that the declaration wins adoption as an international convention of the United Nations (UN).
Despite this growing awareness, the responses to language loss are varied. In some cases endangered languages are aggressively protected. In Wales, for example, Welsh language groups have saved the once-endangered tongue from extinction. Welsh is now used in some schools for instruction, and radio and television broadcasts in the language are common. In other cases, however, indigenous languages slip away without a trace.
The reassertion of ethnic or cultural pride is often an important part of the effort to restore dying languages. The political struggle in Northern Ireland offers a case in point. The number of Irish speakers steadily declined after England conquered Ireland in the 16th century. Under English rule, use of the Irish language was portrayed as a sign of backwardness. But when violence between Protestants and Catholics erupted in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, the language became a symbol of Irish cultural identity. The Irish language has since won a growing following in parts of Ireland as well as among some Irish groups in the United States. In 1998 the first all-Irish-speaking television station, Teilifis na Gaeilge (TnaG), was established in Ireland.
In a similar fashion, the native Maori language of New Zealand has come back from near extinction. Efforts to breathe life into the Maori language were part of a larger movement that began in the 1920s among native Maori to reclaim ancestral lands, revive traditional music and dance, gain political rights, and end discrimination. In 1987 New Zealand recognized Maori, along with English, as an official tongue.
Groups promoting minority languages often devote their efforts to increasing the use of the language in public spaces. These efforts usually focus on education, since educating children in the native language-at least in the early grades-is an important factor in maintaining the language. A notable achievement occurred in 1999, when a group of Hawaiian students graduated from high school after receiving their education entirely in Hawaiian. The students were among the first to participate in the Hawaiian language immersion program, which began with just 28 children in 1987 and now includes about 1,600 students in 16 public schools. These types of programs require the creation of native-language curriculum materials and improved dictionaries to enable fuller discussion of nonnative texts in the native language.
The availability of texts and other historical sources is essential for groups that wish to revive a dead language. When sufficient written materials exist, as they did in the case of Hebrew, the language can be reconstructed. The restored language will not be identical to the original, but it can provide a satisfying approximation that is eventually learned by children. Using such sources, several Native American groups are working toward language restoration, including the Mohegan and Pequot in Connecticut and the Wampanoag in Massachusetts.
In many cases, however, little or no language material is recorded in any form. Linguists have therefore mounted a major effort to record languages, in written and spoken form, all over the world. These records may be of immense value to the preservation of a native community's culture and history, even if the current generation does not achieve fluency in the language.
Many tools are used to record a language. A linguist's most basic tools are special phonetic symbols, used to write the sounds of a language, and audio recordings. Video recordings can capture additional information about how speakers talk, including the importance of gestures, or the way they interact. Sometimes linguists want to learn about the mechanics of speech, such as the amount of air pressure a Khoisan-language speaker uses to produce a click sound. This information can be captured with a tiny air tube inserted into the mouth of a native speaker. Miniature video cameras are also used to study the activity of the vocal chords. All of these modern technologies enable researchers to preserve the otherwise fleeting sounds of spoken language.
The best way to preserve an endangered language is to keep it alive, and a variety of innovative teaching efforts are underway to do just that. For example, the Master-Apprentice program, pioneered in 1993 by linguist Leanne Hinton of the University of California at Berkeley, pairs a younger member of a group with an older speaker for one-on-one language training. By focusing on a single student, the teacher can make the learning faster, surer, and more permanent. The program's goal is that the younger person become a fluent speaker who can train other members of the community and bring the language back into use. Approximately 60 masters and apprentices participated in the program during the first three years of its existence, according to Hinton. Participants included speakers of 20 Native American Languages in California, including Hupa, Karuk, and Mojave.
A wide range of national and international groups are working to halt language extinction. These groups include the United Kingdom's Foundation for Endangered Languages; the international group Terralingua; Germany's Gesellschaft für bedrohte Sprachen; and the U.S.-based Institute for the Preservation of the Original Languages of the Americas (IPOLA), the Native American Language Institute (NALI), and the Endangered Language Fund. Although these groups differ in various ways, all of them share the ultimate goal of preserving the diversity of human language.
The End of Linguistic Diversity?
Prior to the 20th century, many languages with small numbers of speakers survived for centuries. The increasingly interconnected modern world makes it much more difficult for small language communities to live in relative isolation, a key factor in language maintenance and preservation.
It remains to be seen whether the world can maintain its linguistic and cultural diversity in the millennium ahead. Many powerful forces appear to work against it: population growth, which pushes migrant populations into the world's last isolated locales; mass tourism; global telecommunications and mass media; and the spread of gigantic global corporations. All of these forces appear to foreshadow a future in which the language of advertising, popular culture, and consumer products converge. Already English and a few other major tongues have emerged as global languages of commerce and communication. For many of the world's peoples, learning one of these languages is viewed as the key to education, economic opportunity, and a better way of life.
Only about 3,000 languages now in use are expected to survive the coming century. Are most of the rest doomed in the century after that?
Whether most of these languages survive will probably depend on how strongly cultural groups wish to keep their identity alive through a native language. To do so will require an emphasis on bilingualism (mastery of two languages). Bilingual speakers could use their own language in smaller spheres-at home, among friends, in community settings-and a global language at work, in dealings with government, and in commercial spheres. In this way, many small languages could sustain their cultural and linguistic integrity alongside global languages, rather than yield to the homogenizing forces of globalization.
Ironically, the trend of technological innovation that has threatened minority languages could also help save them. For example, some experts predict that computer software translation tools will one day permit minority language speakers to surf the Internet using their native tongues. Linguists are currently using computer-aided learning tools to teach a variety of threatened languages.
For many endangered languages, the line between revival and death is extremely thin. Language is remarkably resilient, however. It is not just a tool for communicating, but also a powerful way of separating different groups, or of demonstrating group identity. Many indigenous communities have shown that it is possible to live in the modern world while reclaiming their unique identities through language.
About the authors: Doug H. Whalen is senior researcher at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut, and the founder and president of the Endangered Language Fund. K. David Harrison is a linguist at Yale University who studies indigenous languages of Siberia.
"The World's Endangered Languages." Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.