What Is the Meaning of Language Death?

An unmarked gravestone

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Language death is a linguistic term for the end or extinction of a language. It is also called language extinction.

Language Extinction

Distinctions are commonly drawn between an endangered language (one with few or no children learning the language) and an extinct language (one in which the last native speaker has died). 

A Language Dies Every Two Weeks

Linguist David Crystal has estimated that "one language [is] dying out somewhere in the world, on average, every two weeks". (By Hook or by Crook: A Journey in Search of English, 2008).

Language Death

  • "Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth — many of them not yet recorded — may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain." (National Geographic Society, Enduring Voices Project)
  • "I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations." (Samuel Johnson, quoted by James Boswell in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 1785)
  • "Language death occurs in unstable bilingual or multilingual speech communities as a result of language shift from a regressive minority language to a dominant majority language. (Wolfgang Dressler, "Language Death." 1988)
  • "Aboriginal Australia holds some of the world's most endangered languages including Amurdag, which was believed to be extinct until a few years ago when linguists came across speaker Charlie Mangulda living in the Northern Territory." (Holly Bentley, "Mind Your Language." The Guardian, Aug. 13, 2010)

The Effects of a Dominant Language

  • "A language is said to be dead when no one speaks it anymore. It may continue to have existence in recorded form, of course — traditionally in writing, more recently as part of a sound or video archive (and it does in a sense 'live on' in this way) — but unless it has fluent speakers one would not talk of it as a 'living language.'...
  • "The effects of a dominant language vary markedly in different parts of the world, as do attitudes towards it. In Australia, the presence of English has, directly or indirectly, caused great linguistic devastation, with 90% of languages moribund. But English is not the language which is dominant throughout Latin America: if languages are dying there, it is not through any 'fault' of English. Moreover, the presence of a dominant language does not automatically result in a 90% extinction rate. Russian has long been dominant in the countries of the former USSR, but there the total destruction of local languages has been estimated to be only (sic) 50%."(David Crystal, Language Death. Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Aesthetic Loss

  • "The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic. The click sounds in certain African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.
  • "But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. . . .
  • "At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation — such as that of the Amish — or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.)" (John McWhorter, "The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English." World Affairs Journal, Fall 2009)

Steps to Preserve a Language

[T]he best non-linguists can do, in North-America, towards preserving languages, dialects, vocabularies and the like is, among other possible actions, (French linguist Claude Hagège, author of On the Death and Life of Languages, in "Q and A: The Death of Languages." The New York Times, Dec. 16, 2009)

  1. Participating in associations which, in the US and Canada, work to obtain from local and national governments a recognition of the importance of Indian languages (prosecuted and led to quasi-extinction during the XIXth century) and cultures, such as those of the Algonquian, Athabaskan, Haida, Na-Dene, Nootkan, Penutian, Salishan, Tlingit communities, to name just a few;
  2. Participating in funding the creation of schools and the appointment and payment of competent teachers;
  3. Participating in the training of linguists and ethnologists belonging to Indian tribes, in order to foster the publication of grammars and dictionaries, which should also be financially helped;
  4. Acting in order to introduce the knowledge of Indian cultures as one of the important topics in American and Canadian TV and radio programs.

An Endangered Language in Tabasco

  • "The language of Ayapaneco has been spoken in the land now known as Mexico for centuries. It has survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines, and floods. But now, like so many other indigenous languages, it's at risk of extinction.
  • "There are just two people left who can speak it fluently — but they refuse to talk to each other. Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69, live 500 metres apart in the village of Ayapa in the tropical lowlands of the southern state of Tabasco. It is not clear whether there is a long-buried argument behind their mutual avoidance, but people who know them say they have never really enjoyed each other's company.
  • "'They don't have a lot in common,' says Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist from Indiana University, who is involved with a project to produce a dictionary of Ayapaneco. Segovia, he says, can be 'a little prickly' and Velazquez, who is 'more stoic,' rarely likes to leave his home.
  • "The dictionary is part of a race against time to revitalize the language before it is definitively too late. 'When I was a boy everybody spoke it,' Segovia told the Guardian by phone. 'It's disappeared little by little, and now I suppose it might die with me.'" (Jo Tuckman, "Language at Risk of Dying Out — Last Two Speakers Aren't Talking." The Guardian, April 13, 2011)
  • "Those linguists racing to save dying languages — urging villagers to raise their children in the small and threatened language rather than the bigger national language — face criticism that they are unintentionally helping keep people impoverished by encouraging them to stay in a small-language ghetto." (Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak. Delacorte, 2011)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Meaning of Language Death?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-language-death-1691215. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What Is the Meaning of Language Death? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-language-death-1691215 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Meaning of Language Death?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-language-death-1691215 (accessed March 24, 2023).