The world's languages are shrinking

Adam   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 11:13 GMT
Daily Policy Digest

International Issues

Monday, August 6, 2001

An estimated 4,000 to 9,000 languages have disappeared over the past five centuries, reports Payal Sampat of the Worldwatch Institute. And many are continuing to disappear. In fact, the most endangered language, Alaska's Eyak, has just one remaining speaker -- and Idaho's Coeur D'Alene language has just five speakers left.

Here are some other interesting language facts:

The world's most widely used language by far is Mandarin Chinese, with 885 million speakers -- followed by English, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and German, according to the 2000 World Almanac.
Only 600 of the world's languages are considered safe from extinction -- because children still are learning them.
Only six of the 300 languages spoken in what is now the U.S. when Columbus arrived are still spoken by more than 10,000 people.
Eighty percent of the 260 native languages still spoken in the U.S. and Canada aren't being learned by children.
English is spoken by more people as a second language, 350 million, than as a native tongue, 322 million.

Scholars say that languages die as a result of wars, genocide, bans on regional languages and cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities. For example, hundreds of South American languages died as a result of the Spanish conquest.

Africa is believed to be the birthplace of nearly one-third of the world's languages.

Source: Joan Lowy (Scripps Howard), "Words Provide Clues to Humanity's Identity," Washington Times, August 6, 2001.
Damian   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 21:24 GMT
I think the death of any language, any means of human communication, is an absolute tragedy. As I have said before in this forum, it is like people themselves passing away. :-(

But as that happens in nature, then I guess it's inevitable for the reasons listed by Adam.
Damian   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 21:26 GMT
Oh dear...I began a sentence with a conjunction... one of the first crimes in grammar I was taught never to commit.
Damian   Wednesday, August 18, 2004, 21:29 GMT
On the theme of the topic, it begs the question....which language will be the last remaining in who knows how many years hence? Place your bets here......
Denis   Friday, August 20, 2004, 07:54 GMT

<<On the theme of the topic, it begs the question....which language will be the last remaining in who knows how many years hence? Place your bets here...... >>

I guess there'll be a mixture of different languages simplified to the greatest extent as a lingua franca and lots of local dialects/languages.
Jordi   Friday, August 20, 2004, 08:47 GMT
If we reach that point I have the feeling it will be some forgotten language in New Guinea. Perhaps that last remaining tribe will give birth to another 10.000 years of civilisation and another 10.000 languages. I could also be the last remaining speakers of a Celtic language in Northern Scotland. What is important is that it will be a tribe that has remained untouched from the rest of the world.
Damian   Friday, August 20, 2004, 16:11 GMT
<<It could also be the last remaining speakers of a Celtic language in Northern Scotland>>


It would be wonderful if that came would also be worth staying alive for 10,000 years see it become reality. I don't think Northern Scotland has remained all that isolated from the rest of the this time of the year a goodly proportion of the rest of the world is in those parts, desperately seeking the passing places on the narrow twisty roads.....and trying to avoid the plagues of midges.....a Scottish curse.

Anyway, the top and bottom of all this: no language or dialect anywhere on Earth should be allowed to perish. End of story.
Paul M   Saturday, August 21, 2004, 02:55 GMT
I don't think there will be just one language left on this earth in future, unless just one race survives.
Mxsmanic   Saturday, August 21, 2004, 21:24 GMT
As long as communication continues to improve, there will be a tendency for all the world's population to converge on a single language. Currently, the most likely candidate is English, although we should remember that at various times in history there have been other, seemingly equally likely candidates, such as Latin and French. Different languages develop in the first place when people are isolated from each other; remove the isolation, and the trend reverses, with languages disappearing instead of developing, and everyone converging on the same language (albeit very slowly).

Most of the world's languages are on the way to oblivion, and nothing can prevent this (nor is it a recent phenomenon). I suspect that a dozen or more languages will survive for centuries to come, even with the best of communications. Eventually, one day in the distant, misty future, everyone may be speaking the same language exclusively. Long before that, everyone will be speaking the same language as either a first or second language. Once everyone speaks a single language as either his native tongue or as a second language, there will be far less reason to retain any other languages, and they may start to disappear. The earlier people become fluent in the second language, the more likely this is to occur (one consequence of teaching people, say, English, from an early age).

All this takes a long time, and I wouldn't panic about it. People are very attached to their languages and often will retain them far beyond the point at which they are more of a hindrance than a help in practical terms.

I think you can expect to see one language worldwide at about the same time you'll see one government and one religion.
Paul M   Sunday, August 22, 2004, 05:02 GMT
Latin and French?, Give me a break..
Easterner   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 16:14 GMT
Some of your visions forecast a gloomy future indeed! :-)

My experience is that it needs really hard pressure for a language to start vanishing, or shrinking, as you say. Either the number of speakers has to decrease by means of natural or violent causes (such is the case with many Native American or Australian Aboriginal languages, one of the darkest chapters in history, same with Yiddish), or the use of it has to be persecuted, discouraged or seen as unprofitable to such an extent that speakers may think it convenient to give up their language for another (as it used to be the case for Irish Gaelic, where there is a bit of both causes, or perhaps Occitan, which is being given up for French).

Having a global language like English will not likely make any language vanish, unless it will be imposed on parts of the world population by administrative decrees. It is a vehicle of international communication, but few non-English speakers identify with it to such an extent that they may give up their native tongue for it. In other words, they don't speak it as their own. One thing we can expect for certain is that no new languages will evolve, as they used to in the past, because of the levelling effects of globalisation.

There may be quite a few languages or dialects (mainly spoken ones with little or no written culture) that may gradually give way to a more powerful language, which is a sad fact in itself, but this can be considered natural as isolating barriers are broken down, and does not affect a large number of people. On the other hand, I don't expect that learning a second language (English or any other) will seriously affect languages which have a long-standing written culture, and most of the world's languages are like that.
Steve K   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 16:32 GMT
There is greater interest in regional identity and better means to teach, protect and promote the use of regional languages today than 100 years ago. There is a decentralizing mood in politics. People are more interested in and more proud of their regional identity even as they utilize international structures and languages to connect with other people. So lets stop all the hand wringing. Many minor dialiects will die out but strong regional languages lie Welsh, Catalan, even Occitan, perhaps Cantonese literature if the Beijing monolith gets less uptight, Dene, and many more I know little about will survive and prosper. Modern technology will help.
Damian   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 21:51 GMT
Steve: I am pleased you mentioned Welsh....every effort is being made to keep that language alive..with great success, apparently. In some parts of Wales, the first language heard and spoken by very young children IS Welsh, such is the grit and determination of at least some of our Celtic brethren to ensure their language survives against the odds.....the greatest of which is the proximity of their close neighbour, the comparative giant they call the Sais (the Welsh name for the English, and Lloegr.....the Welsh name for their neighbouring country, England). That's not bad for a country with a population similar to that of Greater Manchester, and less than a third that of London.
Dulcinea del Toboso   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 02:46 GMT
Dialects will change and die merely by the passage of time; nothing can prevent that.
mikel   Sunday, August 29, 2004, 06:36 GMT
I like what mxsmaniac said about how there will be one language at about the same time that there will be one government and one religion. language is shaped and determined by societal factors after all. and there will never be one single dialect as long as there are minority societies thriving on the outskirts and left on their own.

my forecast is that english and chinese and spanish (and also perhaps hindi and malay-indonesian) will duel it out until one or two emerge from the rubble. my prediction is of course merely that: a prediction, and it is just as good as claiming that no world language will emerge because humans will destroy themselves much earlier and that dinosaurs will once again rule the earth.

one thing is for sure, the knowledge of the many languages existant today will not be lost because the same technology and advancements that cause minority languages to die out are the same forces that allow such languages to be preserved as a historical item. in other words french, javanese and russian will be preserved in the same way that we have preserved latin, old norse, and so forth. except this time there will be sound files and video clips to go along with the texts.

also, i bet that within the one victorious language there will be many phrases that come from various languages, and people will try to sound smart by using them, just like we use old latin phrases in order to sound scholarly and clever, et cetera, et cetera.

i have begun to realize very recently that learning languages is not very useful since one can easily get by with speaking english, but the fact remains that learning languages is delightful, rewarding, and fun and is a great way to keep from being bored and wanting to kill oneself, so to speak.