Languages Deader (Or Dyinger) Than Latin
Latin’s not a dead language … not really. It never completely disappeared, but morphed into a bunch of other languages like Italian and Romanian. Like Anglo-Saxon getting sculpted over the centuries to give us English. And the process is easy to see – think about Shakespeare’s English and you can see how much change can occur in a measly five hundred years.
But there are a lot of languages deader than Latin. (“Deader?” Yeah, check out this post on absolutes.) And they’re dying faster than ever before. According to this article, approximately 90% of the world’s 7,000 languages will die by the end of this century.
How languages croak
The real death, as far as I’m concerned, is when everyone stops speaking it suddenly. For instance, when a population is subject to a disaster, wiping out the language. Or, more commonly, when speakers become bilingual to fit in to a larger society and gradually drift from their traditional tongue.
For instance, my grandparents were fluent speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of German peculiar to an immigrant population in central and southern PA. But as children, they needed to speak English to attend public school. Those who spoke only Dutch were seen as poor, ignorant farmers.
This prejudice was passed on, meaning that they rarely spoke PA Dutch in the home, and aside from a few words they passed on (food and swears, mostly), their language disappeared with them. I remember hearing it spoken in hardware stores and restaurants as a child, though now it’s almost impossible to find a native speaker outside a few isolated communities of Amish and Mennonites.
If they’re not yet dead, can we save them?
Take a look at An Comunn Gàidhealach – an organization formed to promote Gaelic in Scotland where only about 1% of the population speaks the traditional language.
Or consider the revival of Hebrew. For centuries, it had only been a liturgical language in the holy scriptures. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it went through a revival until it became the national language of Israel.
The Arapaho have set up a school to teach their children in their own tongue instead of English – from this great article at the Guardian telling how some Native American tribes are struggling to preserve their languages.
Why do we care?
It’s natural for languages to die and new ones to evolve, right? Sure. And John McWhorter argues that unifying the varied languages might not be a bad idea. But I still don’t have to like it for a number of reasons.
Just the speed at which languages are dying is alarming. The explosion of global communication means that more languages are dying than are being formed. New dialects grow naturally, but how retarded will their growth be compared to previous instances now that they’re removed from isolation by TV, the internet and easy travel?
Also, each language has its own unique vocabulary and singular worldview. Think about all the loan words we steal from other languages because no one in the history of our own tongue has come up with precisely the right word (here’s a topical look at foreign languages’ influence on English). The diversity of languages is a diversity of ideas and concepts that can help broaden our minds.
From an aesthetic point of view, I, for one, lament the homogenization of our world. When we can travel several thousand miles and order the same food we have at home from a familiar restaurant in our native tongue, we’ve lost the wonder of variety. Sure, having everything the same might be easier in some ways, but it’s boring and drab. The loss of a language often goes hand-in-hand with the loss of a different culture, and to me, both are deaths to be lamented because variety really is the spice of life.
What can we do?
For the terminally ill languages, I’m thankful for a number of efforts like this one to document the Yurok language in California, or this one in Africa. Linguists who record dying languages give us information much the same way archeologists help us learn from our history.
And while some argue that preserving separate languages can hamper open communication, I ask why can’t people can’t be multilingual? Yes, speaking one of the common languages of global commerce can help you, but that doesn’t exclude you from speaking another tongue.
P.S. Since I already went well over my five hundred words, here are a few additional links you might find enlightening:
A look at how Hebrew went from isolation in texts to being the first language of millions of Israelis.
Two linguists discuss the reason languages die in this audio clip from WNYC.
Here’s a quick look at Irish and whether there’s hope to preserve it.
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