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How does a Language die?

A dead language is one that is only used in special contexts, such as medicine, prayer and science, and not in everyday life. When I think of dead languages, Greek and Latin come to mind immediately. However, I’ve recently become aware of the vast number of languages that are not only dead, but are extinct. Imagine that! Picture, if you can, a language that was once shared by hundreds of thousands of people over generations suddenly becoming extinct. The truth is, you don’t have to imagine it. According to the experts, it is happening today at a rate of once every two weeks.

Linguists teach that around 8,000 BC there were more than 20,000 existing languages.  In 2012, that number was considered to be 6,909. Linguists estimate that in ten years half of the still existing languages will be gone.

How is that possible? How does a language die? Some contribute the cause to globalization. They claim that the process of interaction and integration among the people of different nations, mostly through commercialism, is killing diversity in language. They assert that only the dominate languages in commerce, meaning English, Spanish and Chinese, will survive. However, is this really the case?  When a young person living in Germany learns one of these ‘dominate’ languages in order to get a better paying job, do they give up speaking German? Many people in the world today are multilingual because of the effect of globalization. However, it’s not likely that any of them have completely abandoned their native tongues. So is globalization the cause?

Education is also blamed for the death of diversity in language.  When a family immigrated to a new country, the schools there will insist that the children speak the official language of the country. Often times this is the death of a language in that family. Many immigrants have grandchildren who only know bits and pieces of their native tongue. Still, consider all the families that the immigrants left behind. Have all of those still living in their birth nation also taken up this new language to accommodate the immigrant? We all know the answer to that question. Therefore, can education be blamed?

Then how does a language die?  Linguists agree that the process can take several generations but that the end, as in the case with anything that dies, is sudden.  Consider this. On January 26, 2010, Boa Senior died and with her came the demise of the Bo language (native to a portion of India). News of her death went around the world, but the result was still the same – one less spoken language to decorate our world and compliment its diversity. Her obituary described how, in her last years, Bo Senior spoke Bo only with the birds because she believed they could understand her – and no one else in the world could. Linguists agree that this is how a language dies.

Phil Borges said, “Of the 6,000 languages spoken on Earth right now, 3,000 aren’t spoken by the children. In one generation, we’re going to halve our cultural diversity.”  Over the generations, globalization and education as well as technology are slowly at work changing our society. People living today are prone to lose sight of the importance of the past and sacrifice it to compete in a global world.  They fail to learn and then pass on to their children the language native to generations of their forefathers. Then, finally, it happens and their last speaker ages and dies.

I believe we need to think about how a language dies. When you consider all that died with Bo Senior, it is sobering. As National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis has said, ““A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. … Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind.” In other words, there was much more that died with Bo Senior than just a compilation of phonetics and phonemes. A history of a people of the world with all its stories and wisdom died too. It would seem that, as with the extinction of an endangered species, when a language dies, it leaves our world a little less charming and a lot less educated.


2 thoughts on “How does a Language die?

  1. “When I think of dead languages, Greek and Latin come to mind immediately” Greek is not a dead language. It is spoken by about 15 million people. The Greek language has an unnterrupted continuity since the Mycenean times; of course it is changeing over time, like all languages, but its rate of change is so slow, that it is easier to read a 2000-year old Greek text, than an 800-year old English text. The Latin is a different story; it is indeed a dead language that has given rise to other languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Postoguese, Romanian…)

    1. Oh! You are so right and I am so wrong!! A really silly mistake for me considering I studied Greek in college. Thank you for pointing that mistake out to me. I will be careful not to make it again!


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