The death of language?
By Tom Colls
An estimated 7,000 languages are being spoken around the world. But
that number is expected to shrink rapidly in the coming decades. What is
lost when a language dies?
In 1992 a prominent US linguist stunned the academic world by predicting that by
the year 2100, 90% of the world’s languages would have ceased to exist.
Far from inspiring the world to act, the issue is still on the margins, according to
prominent French linguist Claude Hagege.
“Most people are not at all interested in the death of languages,” he says. “If we
are not cautious about the way English is progressing it may eventually kill most
According to Ethnologue, a US organisation owned by Christian group SIL
International that compiles a global database of languages, 473 languages are
currently classified as endangered.
Among the ranks are the two known speakers of Lipan Apache alive in the US, four
speakers of Totoro in Colombia and the single Bikya speaker in Cameroon.
“It is difficult to provide an accurate count,” says Ethnologue editor Paul Lewis.
“But we are at a tipping point. From here on we are going to increasingly see the
number of languages going down.”
What is lost?
As globalisation sweeps around the world, it is perhaps natural that small
communities come out of their isolation and seek interaction with the wider world.
The number of languages may be an unhappy casualty, but why fight the tide?
WAR OF WORDS
6% of the world’s languages are spoken by 94% of the world’s
The remaining 94% of languages are spoken by only 6% of the
The largest single language by population is Mandarin (845
million speakers) followed by Spanish (329 million speakers) and
English (328 million speakers).
133 languages are spoken by fewer than 10 people SOURCE:
“What we lose is essentially an enormous cultural heritage, the way of expressing
the relationship with nature, with the world, between themselves in the framework
of their families, their kin people,” says Mr Hagege.
“It’s also the way they express their humour, their love, their life. It is a testimony
of human communities which is extremely precious, because it expresses what
other communities than ours in the modern industrialized world are able to
For linguists like Claude Hagege, languages are not simply a collection of words.
They are living, breathing organisms holding the connections and associations that
define a culture. When a language becomes extinct, the culture in which it lived is
The value of language as a cultural artefact is difficult to dispute, but is it actually
realistic to ask small communities to retain their culture?
One linguist, Professor Salikoko Mufwene, of the University of Chicago, has argued
that the social and economic conditions among some groups of speakers “have
changed to points of no return”.
As cultures evolve, he argues, groups often naturally shift their language use.
Asking them to hold onto languages they no longer want is more for the linguists’
sake than for the communities themselves.
Ethnologue editor Paul Lewis, however, argues that the stakes are much higher.
Because of the close links between language and identity, if people begin to think
of their language as useless, they see their identity as such as well.
This leads to social disruption, depression, suicide and drug use, he says. And as
parents no longer transmit language to their children, the connection between
children and grandparents is broken and traditional values are lost.
“There is a social and cultural ache that remains, where people for generations
realize they have lost something,” he says.
What no-one disputes is that the demise of languages is not always the fault of
worldwide languages like our own.
An increasing number of communities are giving up their language by their own
choice, says Claude Hagege. Many believe that their languages have no future and
that their children will not acquire a professional qualification if they teach them
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