October 21, 2014 by Alison Tunley
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In his book The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver talks about the proliferation of information following the invention and history of the printing press and the potential for misinformation and errors. One example he picks out is a… Read More
It seems like an unlikely thought, but that is what has happened to an estimated 400 languages over the last 100 years, which roughly equates to one tongue dying out every three months.
In addition to this, the BBC reports that around half of the world’s 6,500 languages could be gone by the end of this century – although there are some experts who predict this figure to be much higher.
But how and why can this happen? And can – or even should – it be stopped?
In order to understand the matter, we might want to look at examples of languages that have already failed to stand the test of time.
One famous example is that of Marie Smith Jones, who died in 2008 – taking the Eyak language with her.
Marie was the last fluent speaker of this south-west Alaskan Indian tongue, one similar to no other living languages. Some of its more intricate uses were, for example, to distinguish between a soft, rotten spot in the ice (a demex’ch) and a large, treacherous hole in the ice (a demex’ch’lda’luw).
While this difference may mean little to people who are non-indigenous to the region, this could have been a matter of life and death to native Eyak speakers when the language was in its prime – and highlights why no tongue should ever be considered insignificant as long as there are people who can use it to communicate.
However, globalisation and the dominance of the English language in particular could be to blame for the death of the unique linguistics of communities of the past. In order to remain relevant, such cultures have had to adapt their way of life – and while their language is part of their past, if they can’t communicate with the outside world, it could be a barrier for their future.
And then there are those languages that refuse to die. One example closer to home is Welsh, which remains on road signs alongside the English equivalent translation. It is spoken by around half a million people in the country (around 19 per cent of the population) and is still taught in schools, broadcast on national radio and published in a weekly national newspaper.
It’s a concerted effort of the Welsh people to keep their heritage alive. The language is never likely to be as widely used in their country as English, but that doesn’t mean it is meaningless – and it is perhaps this level of focus that is key to keeping a tongue from going extinct.
What many people fail to recognise is that language is a living thing that is changing and adapting to modern society all the time.
English is a prime example of this, having had origins in German, Dutch, French, Latin, Greek, Nordic and even Japanese to name a few. However, despite these ancient roots, it continues to modernise to the point that there are now sentences that would be completely unrecognisable to those who spoke the language centuries ago (and even to some of us who’ve been speaking it for the last 30 or so years!).
Ultimately, it seems clear why languages are dying out. It is as though language is just like every other living being on the planet – it all boils down to survival of the fittest. We’ve previously written about how to revive an extinct language, but is this just delaying the inevitable? Possibly, although try telling that to the last few proud speakers of Cherokee, Ainu or Yagan.
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