Death of a Language?
(Originally Published August 25, 2014)
How can a language die? Is a language an entity that can exhibit the properties of life and death? The short answer to that second question is a resounding yes. Languages essentially are living beings. In fact, we often hear of language change being akin to human evolution in that languages adapt to their unique surroundings over time to continue to be spoken. Hence, Latin has given way to the Romance languages, and Spanish has seen scores of dialects develop over the course of the past few centuries.
In essence, evolving is a language’s way of surviving. If in the animal kingdom a species adapts to its surroundings to increase the odds of continuing its genes, then a language must do so, as well. Going back to the Romance languages, this is exactly how Latin has “survived” to be spoken in the modern day. We have Roman soldiers and settlers intermixing with groups of people native to different parts of Europe. Each of these communities already speaks one or more unique languages that develop with Vulgar Latin in a symbiotic relationship. Thus, French is seemingly less similar to Spanish, Portuguese and Italian due to the influence of the Germanic tribes that instilled elements of their language over the course of the development of Latin in the region that is now France.
This process is called creolization. We see creoles developing in areas of high contact between disparate groups of people with their own languages. In the Caribbean, this is perhaps most pronounced with French, Spanish, Portuguese, English and even Dutch (to name a few) having been blended with the languages of the local islanders. How is this distinct from the growth of Latin into the Romance languages? In reality, it’s not. The main difference is the extent to which each language has influence in the development of the new one.
So languages are constantly changing. But how can one die? In essence, when the last speaker of a language no longer “speaks” the language, then the language has died. However, as we discussed above, the speaker often opts for a different variation of that language (dialect or other evolved form), rather than adopting a completely different language out of the blue (We’ll discuss this later on when dealing with situations of diglossia). Nevertheless, it is not impossible to resurrect a dead language or to revitalize a dying one. So how can we prevent the death of a language? This is not an easy feat to accomplish. Unlike with animals where the solution is normally to increase and improve breeding circumstances (and even that is challenging), a language needs to have consistent speakers propagating it to maintain its livelihood. You can try teaching many people a language in an attempt to rebuild its base of speakers, but that is not guaranteed to have any legitimate longevity. A great way of preserving the language in the modern age, though, is to document it and record it in some way.
UNESCO has identified many of the world’s endangered languages. Much like different animal species, these languages and dialects’ varying degrees of extinction have been categorized based upon the number of the community and are subsequently labeled as extinct, endangered, threatened, etc. Linguists and anthropologists have made various efforts to study the language and culture of such groups of people to preserve them for as long as possible.
Do you speak a rare or endangered language? What do you think are good ways to preserve languages and cultures? As always, I’m curious to hear your comments!