Language plays a vital role in the identity of a certain cluster of a community. It is through language in which they converse, they do their daily tasks, negotiate with other people and a lot more uses which makes language a necessary requirement for their survival. At this point in time, it would be extremely rare for us to find persons who still do not use a medium of speaking. This is a manifestation that language, just like breathing, eating and other basic needs, is an indispensable facet of life.
With the publication of David Crystal’s book “Language Death” many people were greatly alarmed about the threatening present and future conditions of language. His striking masterpiece gained him acclamations both inside and out of the language field. Language death is a very concerning situation wherein there is a gradual extinction of people who uses a certain language thus leading to the demise of many languages.
To fully comprehend what language death is and what are its implications, it is necessary to open the book that tells what language is, why it is important and how it affects people. Language is the highest form of communication among the human race that is distinguished by the utilization of a set of symbols, arbitrary or spoken, with fixed and established definitions. There are two main approaches toward the study of language. It could be examined through its structure and its use. The latter is carried out among the fields of sociolinguistics, literature, communication, speech and rhetoric, and psychology. The study of the former is conducted through the expertise of linguists in the context of linguistics. There are a lot of reasons to consider why language is considered a very important thing for a person. Self-expression, negotiation with other people, education, these are but a scintilla of how a certain language could be used.
Language has developed just like how human species did. Human language has a distinct characteristic that makes it very different from other forms of communication delivered by other species. Human language was believed to originate during the age of the Neanderthals estimated to be one-hundred thousand years ago (Encarta, 2005). The emergence of the Homo sapiens made the production of language more progressive because of the advancement of their physical and intellectual features. Based on these historical accounts, it may be concluded that modern human language is only 30, 000 to 40, 000 years old. Determining the changes of languages as time passed is rather an intricate method to deal with so historical linguists can only make hypotheses as to what languages occurred during the early times, how they occurred and developed over time.
Where did the modern human language originate? In the 18th century, the German scholar Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz attempted to answer this complex question by formulating the theory of monogenesis. This idea suggests that all languages came from a single definite protolanguage. This is idea is not that hard to imagine and it also has a pretty high possibility since many modern languages today came from a single ancestor language. However, it is also fairly probable that different languages were developed simultaneously from different places to consider that the earth is a huge planet and the emergence of early men is not just concentrated on a certain zone. This direct opposite of Leibniz’ assumption is called the polygenesis.
In instances when a language endures several vocabulary and structural changes, the language may soon be another language. Such is the case of Latin in which Spanish, Castilian, Italian and other modern romance languages were derived from. The emergence of another language may also take place should a sub-language becomes a dominant medium and breaks off from other dialects. This unending intensification and improvement of language further proves that language indeed is a living expression of human nature, culture and traditions.
Currently, there are about 6, 000 languages being spoken around the globe (Krauss, 1992). Less than 300 languages are being spoken by 5.5 billion speakers. The rest of the language is being spoken by only 300 million speakers. Several surveys have been conducted to determine the actual number of existing languages. But as expected, there are varying results. Variations which depends on the parameters, survey methods and techniques, researcher’s ability or lack of it- these reasons created a see-saw in the determination of such numbers. The figure 6, 000 is just a rough mean based on the figures that were presented over the years. There is really a huge number of languages existing and being spoken by millions and even billions at the very moment you finish reading this sentence. Sadly, however, despite the vast number of languages present, a new concept about language emerged- the menacing idea of language death phenomenon.
Language death is intertwined with the use of language extinction, linguistic endangerment and the like. But whatever we call it, language death remains to be a concerning issue nowadays. The story of how languages developed from an ancient origin to the modern languages is very good to hear but with the introduction of this model, it is quite disappointing. Language death is a course that distresses speech areas where linguistic proficiency drops down to a low level which may be brought about by several factors such as the decrease of the population who speaks the language.
There are several types of language death. These were distinguished based on several factors: the length of time it took before a language dies; the degree of language which is considered paralytic or malfunctioning; and the manner on how a certain language deteriorates. These types of language death are gradual, bottom-to-top, radical language death and linguicide.
What causes language death? Most commonly, the cause of language death would be the introduction of a second language to a certain community who uses a certain language. In this process, the natives become bilingual speakers who gradually disregard their heritage language and soon embrace the second language introduced to them. Another reason to consider is the occurrence of migration. Some natives migrate due to economic constraints and more opportunities in other places. Thus, the number of natives in certain area decreases. Diseases which plague a certain community, devastations of natural calamities such as typhoon, hurricane, tornado, landslide- these are also probable causes of this phenomenon. Lastly, the most terrible yet possible thing that could be considered a reason for language death is genocide or the wiping out of a certain race.
When is a language considered to be dead? A language can be called dead when the last speaker of that language dies. Connel (1977) shares his experience when he witnessed a physical death of a certain language in the Mambila Region. He mentioned that he met an old native, known to be the only person in that certain province to speak the language Kasabe- who soon died and brought with him the language which no one knows except him (cited by Crystal, 2002). Instances also occur when a certain language, though natives who knew of it are still alive, is already considered functionally dead. This happens when the language is still known of but is not being used because only a few know about it and comprehend its meanings. A language may also be considered as a moribund language when the degree of usage is extremely low. This process of deterioration is primarily blamed on the occurrences of transmission of a certain language has already ceased. Because of this, as generations pass, the persons who know about a certain language become fewer and fewer until they all die.
Several famous linguists tried determining the real problem that arises due to language death, how it is caused and how would it be remedied. David Crystal is considered a “who’s who” in the field of language. This Irish academe, author and linguist is behind more than a hundred books which relates to language. He is considered as one of the experts in the study of language death with the publication of his article on the said topic. Crystal has several views regarding the development of English language. He mentioned that in the near future, English language will experience a series of splits and convergence which would lead to several English variations and therefore making the original language less comprehensible to many. He coined the term World Standard Spoken English to the type of English language which he presses to having.
Along with Crystal is another linguist by the name of Joshua Aaron Fishman. Fishman is known internationally because of his great works in the field of language. Fishman has published thousands of works including articles which primarily focus on the language field such as multilingualism, bilingualism, language revival, language death and the like. Fishman developed a eight stage model/approach that would help reverse language extinction. The eight-step model involves the study and application of extinct languages from a smaller scale to a larger perspective.
Salikoko Mufwene, a prominent professor of languages in the University of Chicago, released several works about language birth and death and the evolution of languages. He provided several well-analyzed parallelisms between linguistic and biological evolutions. He focused more on the contention that the evolution of language varieties such as creoles and pidgins are just the same as the ordinary change of language. Mufwene argued that the phenomenon of language death has been discussed without even recognizing the phenomenon of language birth, which makes it look so detrimental to the world. Mufwene further stated that there is a parallelism between occurrences of language death and language birth. Obviously, there is a conflict between Mufwene and Crystal since Crystal is pressing on solely on language death while Mufwene holds that language birth provides the phenomenon a check and balance system wherein the number of language lost is compensated and balanced by the number of languages being born. Then should we or shouldn’t we be concerned about language death?
Language death is a phenomenon which is still vague for many persons that is why proper knowledge about this occurrence should be given emphasis. I would respond by saying that this phenomenon should not be taken for granted. With or without language birth, it still remains to be detrimental in such a way that the disappearance of a certain language kills and buries the culture and identity, along with the traditions and legacies of a certain group of people into nothingness. Granted that there is language birth, we should not depend on it alone and let things happen without giving any concern. Furthermore, how would language birth occur in cases when the last speaker of the language dies? There would be no parallelism between the dead language and the language that is expected to be born. Plus, we are not that sure if the language that would be born would be in equal proportion with the number of languages which died. We should not disregard this certain claim of language death since it causes communities to disintegrate not just after the death of the language but during the process of death.
It can be easily contended that one of the primary factors of language extinction and death is globalization. Globalization greatly affects language in most often in the local level. The indigenous languages are the most distressed languages when this process enters the scenario. Globalization is a very complex process wherein free-trade between states is being focused and emphasized. The primary victims of course are the developing countries who have weaker economies and being a developing country, there are more indigenous people living in these places. The problem is that globalized countries often have less rules and regulations which can protect the country from influences to the culture such as language invasion and soon succession. One example of this is the effect of globalization in the United Arab Emirates wherein the world of mass media became so immense because of the free-trade and lax regulations pertaining to the investments of foreign media companies. Because of this, the UAE got alarmed because the social and cultural aspect of the land may be greatly affected, including the use of the language since media is a very influential factor in a society.
Language shift is another factor which promotes language death. It is asserted that language shift leads to death since it involves assimilation of a group of people into the language introduced to them. This can be well analyzed by exemplifying the situation in the Philippines which was thrown over by the Spanish regime to the American Government. Because of this, the number of Spanish-speaking natives gradually decreased as the new medium of communication was introduced by the Americans. There are several detriments language shift could bring especially when it involves the loss of the mother tongue of the native speakers. First is that it affects the socio-cultural relationship of the people. It further leads to the disintegration of the community ties which is very unhealthy in terms of social development.
Linguistic imperialism on the other hand is a theory in which imperialism or expansion of one’s territory for good is used in the context of language. Therefore, language imperialism is defined by Phillipson (1992) as the “the dominance asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages”. Language imperialism mostly focuses on the dominance of the English language over post-colonial countries and neo-colonial countries. This happens when people perceive English as a language which is more beneficial and modern than that of their native languages.
Just like a malignant disease, language death has three main symptoms as defined by Dorian (1980). First is the gradual lessening of the speakers. This shrinking of the number of speakers is mainly caused by death and migration primarily. Second is the smaller area of language use. Because of this, the utilization of language becomes rare and less exposed to people. And lastly is the effect of structural simplification. Because of this simplification in terms of the language’s configuration, it becomes less original and it tends to be dominated by the other language being based upon by its simplification. With the persistence of these indicators, a language becomes a candidate for death.
In the context of language death phenomenon, Krauss (1992) stated there are typically three-types of language. First is the moribund language (discussed earlier). It is called moribund language because it is not anymore being taught by the parents to their children as the mother tongue. Also, it is not being passed on to the succeeding familial generations. Second is the endangered language. An endangered language is less dire than moribund languages. It is a language which is still being learned by children though the symptoms stated earlier are already at large and will therefore affect the degree of comprehension of the children as to the language. The last type of language is considered safe language. This language is assured of lifelong existence because of the great number of speakers using it and the vast domain of its usage.
Fishman (1990) further defined the languages that should be considered on the verge of extinction. He used several conditions so that it would be determined easily as to whether a certain language needs remedy. First is that a language becomes threatened when it is only used a group of people segregated from other people. This isolation would lead to less utilization because only few speaks using it , plus, no one can hear, understand and learn what they are saying. Second is that a language becomes vulnerable to death when it is used by a cluster of people whose age belong to those incapable of further reproduction. With this, the passing on to the next generation would surely be impossible since there would be no generation in the first place. And lastly, a language becomes at risk when it is used only orally without any studies and writings about it. Because of this, the language is considered stagnant and only revolves around the lives of those who speak it. Furthermore, improvement of language would be impossible with this impairment due to lack of learning materials regarding it.
Some others may contradict the negative views about this phenomenon but it is pretty much important to give attention to this language death because in a span of a hundred years, it is expected that out of the 6000 languages being spoke at this very moment, 90% of them would be gone (McWhorter, 2006).
Others claim that the occurrence of language death is not that alarming since it is a natural process and that it only exists to further develop other languages. The perception that the death of a language may be associated with the death of a culture and tradition is not reasonable because human language is immensely flexible thus can be passed over into other generations through stories, history, general knowledge (Tenser, 2004). Historical relations were also accounted by claiming that the death of a language is a part of natural evolution and that even the language spoken by many historical figures like Caesar and even Christ have already died and does not exist today, yet nothing of much concern happened.
However, there is a clear cut distinction between language death and a dead language through normal processes. Language change is a process by which a certain language in the developmental process slowly converts and transforms into a separate and varying language thus leaving the old language variety with no inhabitant speaker. For example, the language Old English is considered a dead language because no one in this new world uses it but, the Modern English language is its offshoot. Modern English came from the Old English language through a series of changes and development. This kind of language change is absolutely different from what we call language death since the former involves an unending series of usage with only slight differences in certain point in time but the mode of transmission still continues.
So why should we be alarmed by this language death phenomenon? First of all, we live in a single planet where history passes in a one-way lane thus we cannot demand to pass on it again if we commit some huge mistakes which would change the destinies of future generations. Historical accounts have indeed shown that some languages have died but these are not cases of language death, these are just cases of what we call pseudoextinction wherein a usage of language is considered dead due to several changes and developments such as the instance of Old English mentioned earlier. This concept of language death is a situation wherein no further use of a certain language would be possible because of several constraints. We should be pretty alarmed that thousands of languages would be taken off the list in the coming years. Plus, we should not further wait for the effects of the death of languages as to whether it would bring harmful effects or it wouldn’t change anything. As I have mentioned earlier, history is just a one-way lane. So if in the future we found out that indeed, language death is detrimental, we couldn’t just say that we need to go back to our time to give more attention to it. When that time comes, all we can say is that we could have done something to avoid it rather than to wait for the detriments to arise.
David Crystal on one hand claims that there are six ways which would help a certain language avoid extinction and being endangered. First is the increase of prestige of a certain community. Through this, the people belonging to that community would elicit a sense of oneness and self-esteem. They would look up to themselves as a model group of people who should be proud of who they are, where they live and most likely, what they speak. Second is the increase in wealth. With the increase of a community’s means, chances are, the community would put great attention into uplifting and preserving one’s culture and tradition by promoting and supporting literacy programs. A higher wealth would also mean that there is a lesser risk of experiencing poverty. Through this assumption, the community would always prioritize education after poverty. Third factor is the increase of rightful power in the perception of the larger community. Because of this perception toward a certain community, people living in other places would be enticed to living in that place since they would also assume that there are more opportunities of succeeding in that kind of place. Migration enters the scene, thus increasing the number of inhabitants, speaker and soon to be native speakers of the community. Another is the strong presence in the educational system. With the progress of education, the language of a community would be preserved because it would be learned and continuously studied thereby diminishing the chances of language extinction. As a result of the strong presence in education, it would be expected that these certain group of people know how to write their language down. Through putting their words in black and white, there would be more chances for the language to survive since these books, papers, articles and paperworks wouldn’t die and would surely outlive them for many years. And lastly would be the literacy of the people in terms of electronic devices and technologies such as the computer and the internet. The world is now becoming modern every minute and surely, the application of this language into electronic technologies would be very strong ground for the long life of a language. This would open the doors for people from the other side of the globe to learn and know what your language is and how you speak it.
Language death is a very concerning phenomenon. We should not take it for granted. It is such a big achievement for this world that the language count reaches to a somehow staggering 6000 to consider that this planet is not that old. We would not want to experience the gradual or sudden death and deterioration of these languages.
Will we allow this thing to happen just because there is language birth at the end of the day? Of course we should not let happen. It would be very irrational an apathetic for us to do so. Thousands of languages are disappearing on the map as time passes and we are supposed to do something to stop it.
Language is a very important part of our lives. It is the sole bearer of our culture, traditions, and beliefs. It is the torch of fire that continuously lightens our path toward where destiny would want us to be. We cannot live without it but as much as we all want these languages to live longer, the process of language death is partly inevitable considering the apathy of certain people towards preserving them. We should be concerned with these issues and we should not castigate its exposition to many people. We should help hand in hand so that we could achieve the lifetime goal of preserving these languages and hopefully for them to outlive the existence of the planet.
Crystal, David. (2002) Language Death. Cambridge: University Press.
Dorian, Nancy C. (1980) Language shift in community and individual: The phenomenon of the laggard semi-speaker. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 25, p. 85-94.
Edwards, John. 1985. Language, society and identity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Fishman, Joshua A. (ed.). (1982) From conceptualization and performance to planning and maintenance. IJSL 38.
Fishman, Joshua A. (1991) Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Krauss, Michael. 1992. The world’s languages in crisis. Language, 68(1), p. 1-42.
McWhorter, John. (December 28, 2006) Dying Languages. The New York Sun Online. Available from ; http://www.nysun.com/article/45847; [Accessed 28 May 2007]
Philipson, Robert. (1992) Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tenser. (March 2, 2004). Language Death. Typepad.com. Available from ;http://tenser.typepad.com/tenser_said_the_tensor/2004/03/language_death.html; [Accessed 28 May 29, 2007]
(1994) Sociolingo: International Sociolinguistics Department Newsletter, 7, p. 1-3.
(n.d.) The Problem: Language Death. Available from ;http://nersp.nerdc.ufl/~ufruss/CELIAC.htm; Accessed [28 May 29, 2007]