Languages: The secret extinction

516 languages are critically endangered and up to two a month are lost for good, but few people are even aware of their disappearance

3 mins

Imagine how eerie, isolating and plain terrifying it must be to be the only person alive speaking your native tongue. Cristina Calderón doesn’t have to imagine: since her sister-in-law died in 2005, she is probably the last remaining native speaker of Yagan, a language now only spoken on Chile’s Navarino Island in Tierra del Fuego. Linguists hope – but have not yet proved – that one other elderly woman may speak Yagan, but Calderón’s neighbours prefer to speak Spanish.

Calderón’s plight is tragic, but not unusual. When William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at the University of Cambridge, researched the comparative disappearance of languages, birds and mammals for Nature magazine in 2003, he identified 46 languages that were down to their last speaker and found 357 spoken by fewer than 50 people.

“Languages are becoming extinct at a far greater rate than species of birds or mammals,” he says. His concern is shared by Unesco and most of the world’s linguists but not, as yet, by the public who probably don’t realise we may be losing as many as one or two languages a month.

Unnatural selection

For some, the demise of an aboriginal language here, a Native American language there, is cause for casual regret. For others, this is Darwinian natural selection at work. Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, doesn’t agree: “Languages have always lived and died, just like species in the natural world. But what we’re seeing today is entirely, hideously, unnatural. Just 10% of languages may be effectively alive by the end of this century. To call that ‘natural selection’ would have Darwin spinning in his grave.”

Although scientists, linguists and governments have finally awoken to this issue, the threat of mass extinction looms larger than ever, with 516 languages identified as especially vulnerable. “If you want to live in a biologically and culturally impoverished world where rats, pigeons and starlings hang around people speaking nothing but Mandarin and English, you should look forward to the future with great excitement,” warns Abley. “I don’t.”

The mass extinction is, he insists, a truly global phenomenon. “In my own country, Canada, there are about 55 indigenous languages but only four or five are in good health. Most of them may die out during my children’s lifetime. The largest number of endangered languages are in the tropics but this is almost as much of an issue in Europe, North America and Australasia.”

Among the languages clinging on to dear life by a fingertip or two are Livonian, a Uralic Finnic language spoken by around 20 people, most of whom live in eight Latvian coastal villages, and Ainu, the native language of Japan’s indigenous people – spoken by just 15 of the 150,000 Ainu who now live in Japan.

Australians, routinely the best in the world at cricket and rugby, may be slower to boast that they are also in a class of their own when it comes to endangered languages. Despite having 0.32% of the world’s population, Australia has somehow contrived to account for more than a third of the world’s languages that tremble on the brink of extinction.

Linguistic genocide

The marginalisation of indigenous cultures has been a remarkably consistent consequence of the ‘civilisation’ of the world in the past three centuries. At its most acute, this marginalisation has led to the disappearance of nationalities. “The languages of Tasmania vanished in the 19th century because the people were all but wiped out,” says Abley, “and almost nothing is known about their grammar, phonetics or vocabulary.”

The notoriously thorough Tasmanian ‘extinction’ represented, in extreme form, the attitudes of many dominant races and governments across the globe in the past century or so. In Victorian Britain, blinkered officialdom concluded that the best way to make the Welsh less lawless was to compel them to learn a civilised tongue such as English. Until 1870, schoolchildren in certain parts of north-west Wales could be punished for not speaking English. If heard saying anything in Welsh, they were handed a wooden plaque and, if they were still holding that plaque at the end of the lesson, they were soundly beaten with it.

Official oppression is thankfully rarer now, yet languages are still dying, probably at an even faster rate than before. Why is this?

“The causes of extinction have become more subtle,” says Abley. “The relatively small number of languages that were disappearing 50 or 100 years ago had often been subject to an obvious catastrophe – such as genocide (in the case of Yiddish) or residential schooling (in the case of many Australian and American languages).

“Today, the causes are more likely to involve economic difficulty that leads to migration from a traditional homeland to a major city, or the cultural loss of confidence that comes when speakers of a minority language are exposed to mass media in a powerful language such as English. The economic and environmental pressures facing indigenous peoples have worsened.

Just think of the death of the rainforests in Indonesia [where 32 languages are officially regarded as threatened by extinction]. The ecological impact is terrible but the cultural and linguistic impact is serious too.”

English for all

The global allure of successful languages isn’t helping matters. “There is evidence that language latches on to technology,” says Sutherland. “The Indo-European languages spread to Europe from the Near East with agriculture, replacing most, if not all, of the native languages. Today, English is the language of the internet, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, so many ambitious young people want to learn it.”

When people adopt a more ‘successful’ foreign language, the sum of human knowledge is reduced. “You find in Mexico, for example, that when some races adopted Spanish, they lost the native terms for the plants they used in their everyday lives,” says Sutherland. “Over time, they forgot how they’d used those plants.”

Abley says the decline in linguistic diversity is not irreversible. Faroese, the language derived from old Norse in the Faroe Islands, has made a comeback – although in the 1990s officials failed to replace the term kompaktdisk with the native invention ljómfloga. Welsh and Basque have also both fought back. The need to preserve their native tongues led, respectively, to the formation of Plaid Cymru and ETA (which wasn’t initially a terrorist organisation at all). In Nunavut, a vast, thinly populated part of the Canadian Arctic, the government has made Inuktiut its official working language, a decision that should aid its survival.

Lose a language, lose your brain

If the human race is to accept multiculturalism – and that is, at this precise point in the history of our species, the mother of all ifs – then it must remain multilingual. The death of a language marks the death of a culture, the point at which a nation loses its heart or, as some linguists put it, the ability of its people to express their collective genius.

The most famous tragicomic linguistic demise, so surreal it sounds like an episode in a Gabriel Garcia Márquez novel, is the tale of Alexander von Humboldt’s parrot. Exploring the village of Maypures, near the Orinoco River in a part of the world we now call Venezuela, the 18th-century German explorer found a parrot speaking a language that no local could understand. The parrot was the last ‘native’ speaker of a language called Atures, belonging to a vanished race.

The death of languages is one mass extinction that has, as yet, not been pondered by the world’s leaders in a forum such as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. But it probably should be. Exactly how we learn language is still the focus of abstruse intellectual debate, but the most common theory, espoused by Noam Chomsky, is that our brains are naturally hard wired to learn languages.

Some devoted Chomskyites argue that this hard wiring is pretty standard for Homo sapiens, yet other scientists and linguists are not so convinced, finding evidence that as children learn language, some neural connections strengthen, while others weaken and even disappear.

A world where everyone speaks Mandarin, Spanish and English wouldn’t just be a poorer, less diverse place, it would be a world where parts of our brains grow rusty or just shut down. Scary prospect, isn’t it?

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