Every 14 days, one of the world's estimated 7,000 spoken languages dies.
Nearly 80% of the world's population speaks just 83 languages. The proportion of people that speak those 83 languages grows everyday due to globalization and urbanization. In contrast, of the 7,000 oral languages that exist, more than 50% are spoken by only 0.2% of all the people on earth.
Over the centuries, obscure dialects from isolated communities all over the world have come and gone, dispersed for reasons as variable as the cultures. Empire-building and conquest of new lands is responsible for the deaths of language on every continent as powerful military, political, and religious forces decimated indigenous cultures. Advancements in agriculture sent entire populations of rural folks to urban centers in order to pursue a livelihood and feed their families, shedding their dialects for the popular nomenclature. Natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti are just two examples of what types of catastrophe can dilute language and culture: After the recovery, no matter how well cities rebuild, communities will never be the same.
When populations migrate, the people all-too-often trade their own language for the dominant language of the region: For economic reasons, for social reasons, for educational reasons. This is how languages die. This is how history is lost. This is how vital cultural identities disappear.
The rate of loss has become critical, and now organizations all across the world are working feverishly toward saving the world's languages which are in danger of dying. The Foundation for Endangered Languages, American Association for Applied Linguistics, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, and other groups are documenting and recording the languages most in danger of being lost. And boy do they have their work cut out for them. For example:
- The Tirahi language of Afghanistan has only about 100 speakers left.
- Lomavren, spoken in Armenia, had only 50 remaining speakers at last count.
- With less than 200 speakers left, Ket can only be heard in a handful of villages in central Siberia.
- There are 25 remaining speakers of Middle Chulym, or Os, a rare language also found in central Siberia.
- The last speakers of Zoque, a language from Tabasco, Mexico, are two elderly men who refuse to speak to one another.
- There are only about 200 remaining Sahaptin speakers, a dialect of the Native American Yakama Nation.
Some languages have enough speakers that a revival could happen, but other technicalities can hinder their progress. The Pirahã language, for example, has an estimated 250 to 380 speakers, but because it is not related to any other language, documenting it is incredibly complicated, if not impossible. It has no singular or plurals, no words for colors, and no words for numbers, meaning the Pirahã cannot be taught even the simplest math. It is also tonal – the word for "I" is distinguished from the word for "excrement" purely by the pitch of the speaker's delivery.
For other dying languages, there is hope. Speakers of the languages are helping researchers lead the way towards a revival.
88-year-old Virginia Beavert, one of the last Sahaptin speakers, has helped to co-write a translation dictionary for the language with University of Washington linguistics professor Sharon Hargus. The Ichishkiin Sinwit Yakama/Yakima Sahaptin Dictionary comes with a CD of Beavert pronouncing 9,830 Sahaptin words and phrases. It is hoped that the collaboration may inspire younger members of the Yakama Nation to learn the language.
There is only so much linguists can do to save these languages, though. Linguists can't personally maintain a language, all they can do is provide adequate documentation for it, like the translation dictionary with CD. It's up to the people to take it from there.
"The people themselves have to choose to maintain it. That requires a lot of effort, both in producing materials that will be suitable for schooling, for example, and a lot of personal effort that the people themselves require to make real the desire that they have to maintain their language," [says Dr. Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages].What's more, there could be more than language at stake, here. Within ancient words could be answers to questions present-day humans have. Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says the speech of hunter-gatherer societies carry an intimate, encoded understanding of the natural world and its biodiversity. Scientists have found small languages to be a veritable storehouses of local knowledge of medicinal plants and ecology. The bo language, which died with its oldest speaker Boa Sr in early February, had at least 67 words for varieties of birds and some 150 for fish. "There's a vast knowledge base slipping from our grasp," says Abbi.
With enough effort, disappearing dialects can flourish again. One of the great examples for the successful revival of a language in recent times is Welsh, the language of Wales in Great Britain. Just 20 years ago it was on the verge of extinction, but now it has hundreds of thousands of speakers. Welsh had one thing that most endangered languages do not: enthusiastic government support. Financial support from the government assured the revival of the Welsh language became a reality.
While money is important, it really will take action and cooperation between linguistic researchers and the speakers of these languages to save them. It would be a shame to lose the history and knowledge they contain. Ironically, though modern advancements have helped to contribute to the decimation of languages and culture, recording technology and the use of the internet to share knowledge could also help to preserve them.