Why Languages Die

By R. Siva Kumar - 27 Apr '15 19:17PM
  • Maori
  • (Photo : Tim Graham/Getty Images) Traditional tattoos on face of Maori warrior

The words and stories of various cultures carry our histories with them. Still, most of the 6,000 tongues we speak, UNESCO estimates, will be dead by the end of the century.

Most languages are doomed to disappear if very few native speakers are using it, and they are not being transmitted to their children, according to ozy.com.

Due to globalization and urbanization, languages are dying out . In the US, last year, the few monolingual speakers of Chickasaw and Klallam, two Native American languages, died.

The main reason for the death of most languages is new economic growth, according to sciencemag. English and Mandarin speakers are in better chance of succeeding in their attempts to move forward in life, compared to other languages.

 "Of course it's all right that we don't speak Latin in the streets of Rome anymore, but before it disappeared, Latin had a chance to leave descendants," explains Wade Davis, a cultural anthropologist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

There is a list of 576 languages that are endangered, according to UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.

There are thousands of other languages that are said to be in danger. The danger seems to be sweeping most of the continents in the world. For instance, Ainu, a Japanese dialect from Hokkaido Island, has just 10 native speakers left. Or Apiaká in Brazil, which actually is familiar to just one person. Other languages are thought to be "dormant", without any known speakers. However, none of them have been confirmed to be extinct either, such as the Baygo language in South Sudan.

According to BBC, in the past century, about 400 languages have died---about one in every three months. Experts feel that 50% to 90% of the languages in the world are going to die by the turn of this century.

To fight back, some measures have been taken. For instance, in New Zealand, the Maoris started nursery schools with elderly Maori teachers taking the "language nests." In Mexico, the last two surviving speakers of Ayapaneco, a thousand-year-old pre-Columbian tongue, were not on speaking terms. But now they have come together to revive their language.

The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages or National Geographic are struggling to document languages that are looking as if they might disappear. Google is using all its resources in order to preserve linguistic diversity.

Is the loss of language just "ethno-linguistic natural selection"? It is clear that with the death of a language, there is the loss of a great accepted culture. "Only a few cultures erected grandiose architectural monuments by which we can remember their achievements. But all cultures encode their genius in their languages, stories and lexicons," says K. David Harrison, director of research at the Living Tongues Institute and author of 'When Languages Die'.

Let us, then, not forget the value of the spoken work and language, that great repository of history.

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