Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Languages Deader (Or Dyinger) Than Latin

with 8 comments

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great: Proud to know his language lived on ... sort of.

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.

Written by Nathanael Green

November 3, 2009 at 7:06 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I read in When Languages Die (K. David Harrison, 2005) that multilingualism promotes increased brain functionality in terms of intelligence and ability to solve problems in different ways. After all, if you can think about a problem using the syntax of English, Arapaho, and Zulu, you’ve got three different ways of stating it (which certainly helps in solving it). Harrison is a pretty cool guy. We invited him to Rutgers and had cupcakes while he showed the PBS documentary version of his book, the latter of which I highly recommend if you’ve got the time.

    It’s extremely important to document dying languages (quickly) because it allows us to see just what our brains are capable of. But cultural knowledge and cerebral arguments aside, preserving languages is preserving art. And I’m all for that.

    Kevin Dickinson

    November 3, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    • Thanks for the recommendation; I’ll definitely have to pick up When Languages Die – that sounds like something that needs to be in my collection.

      Have you seen or heard of the recent movie The Linguists? Here’s a link to its website, and though I haven’t yet seen it (BAD Nate!), it’s on my to-own list.

      Nathanael Green

      November 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm

      • The Linguists was actually the documentary I was referring to above. It’s the counterpart to the book When Languages Die, so if you like the documentary you will definitely like the book (it’s way more in-depth).

        Kevin Dickinson

        November 8, 2009 at 9:48 pm

        • I’m with you. Here in the U.S., I think we are probably among the worst for assimilating people into the dominant tongue while only paying lip service to others. And I’m certainly not fluent in anything, though I’ve studied several. But I wish I was.

          I wonder if we should all take a page out of Ray Bradbury’s book and commit ourselves to being the repository of some dying language–the more obscure, the better. Actually, I suppose it should be at least two people who commit to learn it together, as communication is most of the point.


          November 10, 2009 at 8:09 pm

        • I like that idea, Seana – learn an obscure language with a partner to keep it going!

          Have you chosen a rescue language yet?

          Nathanael Green

          November 24, 2009 at 7:47 pm

        • No, I haven’t. Let me get back to you on that. I suppose as a Californian it should probably be that of some remnant California tribe. Actually when I wrote and researched a California trivia book, I did come across some fascinating examples of tribes attempting to preserve language. I wonder if I could dig any of that up again.


          November 24, 2009 at 8:07 pm

        • A long time ago I made an attempt to learn Lakota, and only remember a few random words and a little of the grammar. It’s a beautiful language, but as a twelve-year-old without the internet living 2,000 miles from any speakers whatsoever, it was an up-hill struggle.

          Nathanael Green

          November 25, 2009 at 10:26 am

        • But noble.

          Speaking of twelve year olds, it would probably make more sense to enlist some of them, as their language retention skills are bound to be a whole lot better than mine, and the statistics are all with them as far as longevity goes.

          Darn. If my sister wasn’t so busy getting my nephew and niece learning Japanese, I could probably enlist them.


          November 25, 2009 at 11:26 am

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