A dead language is one which has no remaining native speakers. Dying languages are considered endangered through various tiers relating to how widely they’re spoken and whether the remaining speakers are older or younger. Throughout time, many languages, particularly smaller languages which are spoken by more remote or dispersed communities are lost in shifts towards more dominant languages. Other factors be involved, including the direct oppression of certain languages, the teaching of more widely used languages to further community prospects or the migration of young language speakers combined with aging populations.
What is language death?
Not all languages last the test of time. Language, like the people who use it (which is everyone!), is a constantly shifting dynamic. Through various geographical, biological and societal changes, languages can deplete partly, entirely or even replete and resurge markedly. When a language reaches a point where it’s last native or fluent speakers are lost, it may be considered extinct. Languages like Latin can instead form the fundamental basis for new languages which evolve with components of their original languages. In these cases, whilst the original language isn’t widely or natively used, it can’t be easily considered extinct, but simply adapted and distributed in the forms of hundreds of even thousands of other languages.
Languages which are extinct or no longer exist in their original forms
Sanskrit: is sometimes considered the mother of all languages. It is sometimes considered a crucially dead language, though such labelling is the source of debate amongst historians and linguists. It’s the earliest ancient language and has influenced Hindi, Bengali, Nepalese, Urdu, Punjabi and there are many other languages where Sanskrit words are found widely. Because of this, Sanskrit will forever live on but as a language unto itself, it is largely dead, with no fluent or native speakers – just a score of scholars who are familiar enough with Sanskrit to use it.
Latin: If you were to make a loose analogy then Sanskrit would be to parts of Asia and South Asia as Latin is to Europe. Once again, though, Latin is only a dead language when viewed without the context of how it has developed into many other languages including the Romance languages of Europe. Italian, French, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese, Catalan, Venetian, etc, are all included and countless other languages and dialects use Latin components. Latin words feature prolifically in many languages. Latin’s pure spoken and written form is dead but mostly, it’s developed and adapted.
Greek: Some larger languages which are more likely to be considered absolutely dead might include Coptic, which is an ancient Egyptian language written with Greek characters. Arabic was partly spawned from Coptic. Ancient Egyptian, written in hieroglyphics is no longer used by any population. Old Norse and Olde English are also dead and seldom used languages – they’re almost never used in conversation or writing outside of academic study. There are always linguists and academics who can read, write and otherwise use extinct languages but crucially, extinct implies that the language has no functional role amongst native or fluent speakers.
In addition to these more recent languages there are many ancient scripts that are extinct, for example Sumerian or Hittite, both spoken between 2000 and 3000 BC no longer exist amongst living populations. Aside from these larger languages, there are thousands of smaller languages and dialects which are considered extinct and many of these have little or no written record or documentation to survey information from.
How many languages are dying each year?
There might be almost 250,000 extinct languages now, which is a huge number spanning thousands of years. If you included small local dialects and languages which aren’t known to studies, this number may easily double. Right now, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 spoken languages in the world. Many studies estimate that this will be reduced by 50% to 90% by 2100 or earlier.
How do languages become endangered?
The reasons for language death and extinction are complex and diverse. Some languages evolve slowly until the original language bears little resemblance to the newly spawned languages which are distributed over wider areas. Others experience a transient increase in the language death rate, quickly dissipating over fewer years. This happens most frequently during conflict or oppression.
Early language death
Human cultures were widely distributed and many became isolated. As small and unique communities gained mobility or otherwise emigrated, many became absorbed by more dominant cultures. These larger bodies of language would be slowly introduced in order to improve cross-cultural communication. Eventually, one culture slowly adopts the dominant language.
Modern language death
Aside from this natural and occasionally mutually beneficial language shift, a culture can actively oppress a language. For example, Spain oppressed Catalan languages throughout history until the mid 70s. Britain had banned Irish in British and Northern Irish schools and Welsh was banned in the 19th century in an effort to phase it out completely. In South Africa, English is pushed onto pupils when as little as 9% of the population use English as their primary language. English is now widespread throughout Africa and many Asian cultures are adopting English to provide children with a language advantage versus countries which don’t educate their children in the English language. Whilst the most obvious example is English swallowing up linguistic diversities worldwide, Spanish, Portuguese and French have also displaced smaller languages. The Colonial era may have seen the quickest rise in language death due.
Which organisation classifies a language as endangered?
UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation compile tables of critical, endangered and extinct languages. They classify languages from vulnerable to extinct. This classification system mostly focuses on how many younger individuals speak the language as that correlates most strongly to language longevity and health.
Vulnerable – this denotes a language where most children do speak it but only in certain circumstances, for example at home with their parents.
Definitely Endangered – this means that children no longer use the suggested language as a mother tongue
Severely Endangered – This means a language which is only spoken amongst old generations, who may use it when speaking to each other but not to younger individuals
Critical – This means the language is rarely used even amongst the oldest members of that society
Extinct – there are no speakers remaining
Challenges in keeping a language alive.
Keeping multiple native languages alive, many of which may be lesser-known languages, is a challenge. As a basic fundamental, the dominant cultural group must favour language diversity and not look to create a one-language society to help less languages live. Endangered groups of language speakers must want to embrace their language. Many stories associated to language revival precipitate from a resurgence of cultural identity. A key example is the Welsh language, which has been continually revived throughout the late 1900s to the present day where young people still study it and its associated history at school and university. Now, young Welsh speakers embrace this linguistic identity.
11 Dying Languages Around the World
Here’s a list of dying languages around the world ranging from endangered to severely endangered.
Manchu was an official language of the Chinese Qing dynasty between 1636 to 1911. Now, the vast majority of Manchus have learnt Mandarin. UNESCO suggested that Manchu reached a point where there was only 10 native speakers from an enormous pool of 10 million ethnic Manchu people. Manchu is mostly spoken in North East China. Although Manchu is critically endangered, it has seen a resurgence in speakers who use it as a second language.
Several thousand speak it as a second language. Texts written in the Manchu language yield high historical relevance. Online courses and other forms of teaching have helped the language resurge in recent years.
Kristang is a creole language of Malacca, Malaysia and Singapore, this language originated in 1511 after the Portuguese conquest of Malaysia. Communities of Kristang speakers were created through interracial relationships. It is currently classified as severely endangered with Kristang being spoken by only a mere 2150 speakers in Malaysia (specifically Melaka) and Singapore.
In the 19th century Kristang was spoken by a few thousand. It’s well known for its poetic vocabulary, including words like “pintalumezi” meaning camera, literally “light-painting machine”. To preserve the language from completely disappearing, young people in Singapore have recently taken an interest in Kristang and studying it.
Originating in old Asia Minor, this mixed language is spoken in Central Turkey. Population exchanges between the people of Greece and Turkey in the 1920s dispersed the language and Cappadocians moved more into Greece. These people adopted standard Greek quickly and thus, Cappadocian Greek was considered extinct for a period.
Though considered severely endangered, Cappadocian Greek is spoken by middle-aged and younger individuals who have a healthy attitude towards its survival.
In 2005, Cappadocians were surveyed in Central and North Greece and amazingly, they could still speak their Cappadocian language with good fluency.
Though officially extinct according to UNESCO, this language is undergoing a survey to see how many speakers remain.
An Upper German dialect, the Gottscheer people dwelled in Slovenia before 1941 dispersed mostly throughout mountainous regions. Current classification.
Classified as critically endangered, the amount of Gottscheerisch speakers left in Slovenia is tiny. In the 19th century, many emigrated to the US, leaving their homes during the Second World War. Subsequently, the language was banned in former Yugoslavia. A significant community lives in Queens, New York.
The indigenous Aeta people of the Philippines spoke a language named Ata. Classified as critically endangered, Ata is spoken by just a handful of elderly individuals.
Literally a handful with some surveys suggesting just two elderly individuals.
This Eastern Romance language is spoken in Greece, Albania, Romania, Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria. It has fewer Slavic words and more Greek and Latin words than Romanian.
Classified as definitely endangered, Aromanian is spoken by around 500,000 across parts of Europe.
Aromanian is a respected amongst its countries particularly in Macedonia. With some official status in Macedonia, Aromanian is taught in some schools and citizens have the rights to use it in court proceedings.
Originated in Lithuania, remote parts of Poland, Crimea and the Ukraine. Karaim has some theories surrounding its Byzantine origins but its primary origin remains debated. Karaim is critically endangered with only 200 Karaim people remaining in Lithuania and only a handful of other speakers are found throughout other countries including ones in Eastern Europe, Turkey and the US.
The Lithuanian dialects of the Karaim language is unique to the town of Trakai. A small community has lived here since the 14th century. Like many Eastern European languages and dialects, Karaim began to die out after the dispersal of people following the Soviet regime.
Spoken in North Italy and Switzerland, Istriot originated in the Ladin populations of the Alps. Istriot was dispersed after the Yugoslavs expelled communists into Italy.
It is now critically endangered with approximately 400 native speakers concentrated mostly in Croatia.
Tolowa is a Pacific Coast language, part of the Athabaskan language family. The area that featured these languages scatters over California and Oregon. It is listed as critically endangered with just one elderly speaker in 2001 so for all intents and purposes, Tolowa is extinct.
Today, Tolowa has an adapted version, named Siletz Dee-ni. This is used across parts of the Native American reservation. Several books have been published about it along with some notes on the language and its alphabet.
Sicilian derived from Greek, Arabic and Latin. It’s one of the oldest Romance languages which is derived from Latin. 5,000,000 Sicilians speak Sicilian so it is vulnerable. This is mostly due to the language’s proportion of more elderly speakers.
As the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily was often well-traversed by various people moving between modern Europe and Asia. Italian is used mostly in Sicily now. However, Sicilian is still spoken by the majority of those who live within Sicily. It still features prolifically in their education curriculums though and is interesting for linguists who agree that it has a particularly diverse and ancient set of influences.
What happens to dying languages?
Language death is a complex process that encaptures anthropology, linguistics, physical science and history. It’s an enormous task for academics and researchers to compile info on the world’s thousands of languages and swathes of information is incomplete. This makes it so hard to determine the factors that lead to language death. For the most part, languages are being swallowed up to make way for the larger more universally understood languages like Mandarin, English and Spanish.
On one hand, having mutual comprehension across the populations of the world is mutually beneficial. However, the crucial question is what is the sacrifice? If we are sacrificing important aspects of our various identities then this could affect communities, lessening their unique contribution to the world’s diversity.