Nine-tenths of the world’s 6000 languages
are teetering on the brink of extinction
Some may yet be saved
A language is considered dead when it ceases to be spoken. To most readers of this review, such a fate for their language seems as remote a possibility as being struck by a meteor. But for millions of other people, the prospect of imminent annihilation of their means of linguistic expression is a looming catastrophe every bit as real and threatening as global warming.
Loss of language is a concern not just to speakers of languages teetering on the brink of extinction but also to anthropologists, linguists, and those interested in preserving the cultural identity of others.
At the vanguard of activists waving the linguistic banner is Professor David Crystal, author of some 100 books on linguistic matters and a former editor of a number of Cambridge publications focused on language.
Crystal’s 200-page book, Language Death, gives provender to not only linguists, but all those interested in the humanities. Organised in five chapters with a question as title, the book explores the nature and scale of language death, why it matters, the reasons for it and what, if anything, can be done about it.
How many languages face imminent death? To put this question in context, we first need to know how many languages exist. The number, depending on one’s reference source and method of calculation, is around six-thousand. Of these, fewer than one-thousand – perhaps as few as five-hundred – will still be current by the end of the twenty-first century.
Many of these are languages that have never been written or even recorded in audio form, so that the death of their last speaker marks their absolute demise. Crystal in the preface to his book is able to provide the specific date of death of two languages – Ubuh on October 8 1992 and Kasabe on November 5 1995 – the dates of death of their last speakers.
Of the latter language, he writes starkly: ‘On 4 November 1995, Kasabe existed; on 5 November, it did not.’
Ubuh or Ubykh originated in the Western Caucuses and Kasabe in Camaroon. Their deaths might be perceived by some as a phenomenon affecting only languages spoken in remote places or by few speakers. But Crystal points out that even widely-spoken languages are under threat: Yoruba, with over 20 million speakers in West Africa, including Nigeria, is considered ‘deprived’ because it is being dominated by English in higher education.
Linguistic communities, large or small, often fall victim to what Crystal calls this ‘steamrolling’ effect of more dominant languages, that crush and assimilate them.
In Switzerland, Romansh struggles to hold its own among German, French and Italian, as an official language of Switzerland.
On the fringes of Europe, Celtic languages like Breton, Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh have struggled for centuries against linguistic assimilation by French and English, two of the world’s major ‘steamrollers’. Similarly, Basque remains ‘vulnerable’ to another global steamroller, Spanish, a quarter of a century after it was given official status as the language of one of democratic Spain’s autonomous regions.
Indeed so powerful is the steamrolling effect that, according to Crystal, some 96% of the world’s population speak only 4% of the world’s languages. Put another way, 96% of the world’s languages are at risk of death.
Does this death matter? Should we care? After all, in a world which promotes ad nauseam the advantages of globalisation, surely it would benefit all humanity if everyone spoke, say, just one language! What better way to advance mutual understanding and solidarity among the world’s diverse people?
Such a view may be attributed to the Old Testament story of Babel, which postulated that linguistic diversity was a divine penalty inflicted on humanity as a punishment.
Crystal quickly demolishes this argument. He points out that we also know from the Bible that the world spoke many languages prior to the ‘curse’ of Babel, and that strongly monolingual countries have hosted some of the worst civil wars e.g. Rwanda, Vietnam.
The author cites the values of diversity and language as an expression of individual identity among five reasons why we should care about language death. The others are that languages are repositories of history, they are part of the sum of human knowledge and they are interesting in their own right.
Among the main reasons for language death are negative attitudes towards a language created by cultural assimilation and replacement by a more dominant language. This negative attitude does not emanate solely from global powers. The author cites ethnic rivalry in Africa as an example causing antipathy to the languages of others. Another reason is annihilation of populations due to disease or genocide.
What can be done to halt the decay? At a semi-official level, moves to shore up the dam have been afoot since 1992 when the International Linguistics Congress in Quebec called on Unesco to respond to the situation by promoting the recording and documentation of unstudied languages. The following year, the UN’s Endangered Languages Project was born.
Other events followed in 1995: Tokyo University set up an International Clearing House for Endangered Languages; an Endangered Language Fund was established in the US and, in Britain, the not-for-profit Foundation for Endangered Languages was born.
But such official moves count for nothing without the direct involvement of those most affected: the speakers of the endangered language.
Crystal points out that many cultures whose languages are under threat have no interest in their salvation. The negative attitudes are often driven by economic factors: a new language may offer an escape from poverty and disease; more opportunities in education and work, or it may simply be perceived as ‘cool’.
To counteract such negative attitudes Crystal considers it essential to develop the prestige, wealth and power of endangered linguistic communities and to give their language a strong place within the education system. But these goals depend on linguistic expertise. Finding people who can write dictionaries and textbooks so that the language can be taught may be a tall order when a language has never been written or recorded in the first place.
It also costs money: some US$200, 000 is Crystal’s estimate to get a rehabilitation programme started for a single language. With some 3,000 languages requiring treatment, the cost looks astronomical. Crystal puts it in perspective: the total cost is still less than a billion dollars – or less than one’s day’s profit from OPEC oil revenues. He makes his own contribution by pledging all royalties from the sale of his book to the Foundation for Endangered Languages.
Language Death, by David Crystal, is published by Cambridge University Press. It is available at bookstores and through Amazon.com. Hardback: ISBN 0 521 65321 5. Paperback: ISBN 0 521 01271 6.
Reviewer: Cliff Hutton
Back to top
To see see a selection of articles from previous Reviews and Linguabites columns, please click here