Why Do Languages Die?

The world of language is a fascinating one: there are around 6,900 living languages, and many more dialects, all constantly changing and evolving. Indeed, many languages do ‘evolve’ out of existence, changing through use as well as through borrowings. Anglo Saxon became modern English through a combination of both – with complex vowel shifts and imports from French and Norse – while today’s French and German speakers worry about the displacement of ‘native’ words by adopted English terms. Still other languages have simply died out, or been displaced by colonial powers: many minority languages like Breton and Irish are now critically endangered, like linguistic rhinos, with their own ‘conservation programmes’ working to bring them back to full strength.

Unfortunately, many language habitats have been destroyed for good. In 1999, Amadeo García García became the last speaker of Taushiro, an Amazonian language whose speakers were wiped out by disease, human traffickers, war, and environmental destruction. In California, although the Yokuts still number around 2,000, there is only one fluent speaker of their tongue, Wukchumni, remaining.

Although so many languages have vanished for good, there is some hope: Marie Wilcox, the last Wukchumni speaker is now teaching her grandson the language, and although she may not finish this job she is using her remaining time to record a comprehensive dictionary to preserve it for future generations of Yokuts. This is already being used for weekly language classes – to teach the tribe to speak their own language again.
Anybody can help with this preservation of our collective heritage, not only the families and communities that want to retain them. There are now initiatives asking people to ‘adopt’ and learn an endangered language, to prevent their deaths by increasing the pool of speakers. Professional linguists and polyglots are especially useful in this cause, given their aptitude for attaining fluency in other languages – and most likely to find it a fun intellectual exercise.

Why not check out the UNESCO atlas of world languages to see how you can help?

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