Language: An Endangered Species

When Languages Die

If you are riding in an elevator at a hotel hosting a conference of linguists you might overhear them lamenting the almost daily loss of another language.
Throughout the world, it is estimated that more than sixty-nine hundred languages exist today. Yet by some counts, every month a language dies out as the last speaker breathes his or her last word. An evangelical group called the Summer Institute of Linguistics estimates that over 400 of those are on the nearly extinct list.

Like birds and salamanders, isolation gives a certain protection to the dialects and meanings that make up a language. But modern transportation, technology and the never-ending search for fuel and pharmaceuticals bring more and more of the hidden valleys and rocky plains into contact with the major languages. Along with contact come the incentives of modern health and riches which no isolated community can long resist. Brazilian Indians, hidden for years until loggers cleared their way into the dense forest are selling land for smart phones. Television, satellite and modern technology are virtually complete. The most popular languages of China, India, the U.S. and Britain cannot help but overwhelm a language that only has 50 speakers.

Nevertheless, diversity still flourishes. Papua New Guinea has 841 languages although 11 of these have no known living speakers! Indonesia follows second with approximately 730 then Nigeria with around 500 and India with over 380. Mandarin, Hindi, English, Spanish and Bengali are among the largest languages each with more than 200 million speakers.

Some 200 years ago a German explorer came upon a village in what is now Venezuela. He heard a parrot speaking and asked what it was saying. The villagers explained they did not know because the parrot spoke Atures and was its last native speaker.

On an island north of Australia lives one of the three remaining speakers of Mati Ke. The other speaker lives far away and the third is his sister; unfortunately traditional culture has forbidden him to speak with her since puberty.

Wars, migration, famine, and technology all contribute to the demise of languages. When a language dies out, an entire way of seeing the world and understanding unique human experiences leave us as well.