Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Language Death

Last night in my class, we were discussing language death. Linguists estimate there are about 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, but that within 200 years or so the number of languages will be reduced to 200.

This is a tragic loss for humanity, as we know each language has its unique vocabulary, expressions, and words to convey thoughts. As any speaker of any language knows, there are certain unique phrases that cannot quite be translated into another language. For example, something subtle is lost if Shakespeare is not in English, and Madame Bovary not in French. Call it the voice of that language.

Not that French or English are in any danger of extinction. Endangered languages mostly consist of indigenous languages, spoken by geographically isolated peoples, tribes, or small villages. In a world of vast globalization and urbanization, these languages are being stamped out.

There are four conditions which can cause language death. Language death means that no where in the world does a L1 (first language) speaker of that certain language exist. (Of course written languages are distinguishable, as we have ancient Latin or Sanskrit texts, but no speakers. )

1. Language death due to genocide.

2. Language death due to language shift.

3. Language death without language shift.

4. Nominal language death through language metamorphosis.

The most common conditions of language death are due to language shift, and language death without language shift. An example of language death with language shift (eventual replacement of another language) happens quite a bit in Africa. People of a small tribe move to a large city, and eventually learn the lingua franca of the region. Over time they no longer speak their home language, and the people in their old village die off or move.

An example of language death without language shift is the case of Chief Marie Smith Jones of the Eyak tribe in Alaska. When she passed away in 2008, she was the last L1 speaker of Eyak. Though her children and others may know some words and phrases of the language, Eyak is not their dominant or first language.

Often language death can be traced to a number of factors. Hundreds of American Indian tribal languages have been lost, due to a combination of genocide and language shift. After decimation of their tribe, the few remaining tribal members moved to reservations and eventually learned English. Over time their native languages were lost.

An example of language death due to language metamorphosis is Latin. Though folks say it is a 'dead' language, in fact many spoken words of Spanish, Portuguese, French, & Italian are Latin words. Latin survived in a sense, but morphed into several related Romance languages.

What can linguists do about language death? It is a very difficult problem. Often documentation of the language is the only recourse. However, there is a project underway called
Enduring Voices through National Geographic. Linguists have identified several hot spots in the world.

Occasionally language revitalization is possible. A couple of examples are Yiddish, Hebrew, and Gaelic. Out of the three, Hebrew is considered by linguists to be the only true case of fully successful language revitalization. Some disagree that Yiddish and Gaelic are truly revitalized, and are dying languages. Hopefully not.
"Conaionn tu saor no basaigh"

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