There are close to 7,000 languages spoken on earth.
However, it’s estimated that by the end of this century, up to 50% of them may be lost. Eighty percent of the world’s population now speaks just 1% of its languages, with languages like English dominating the internet, television, and published texts.
What do we lose when we lose a language? And should dying languages by saved?
Why do languages die?
Many factors contribute to the disappearance of languages. Decades and even centuries after colonization, indigenous linguistic and cultural traditions continue to suffer due to imposed language standards. Though few countries still persecute people for speaking in their native languages, the legacy left by linguistic imperialism is as strong as ever. From the United States to South America, Africa, Australia, and virtually every other place on earth with a history of colonization, classroom instruction, government affairs, and most business practices are conducted in the colonizing language. This tends to be true even when most of the population speaks a different language at home or with friends. Thus, language becomes a symbol of status.
To illustrate this phenomenon, we can look at the way that different dialects of English are similarly associated with class and status. As the dialect used in classroom instruction, Standard American English is considered a high-status dialect, and being able to speak and write it comes with a host of benefits. In contrast, speakers of other English dialects, including African American Vernacular or Chicano English, may face linguistic discrimination.
Additionally, the global use of the internet is likely only increasing the rate at which some languages disappear. Of the world’s 7,000 languages, only about 250 languages can be called well-established online, and another 140 are borderline.
Losing a language
Tales of language extinction are inherently gut-wrenching. It can be hard to wrap our minds around the experience of being a language’s last speaker – a person who suffered the loss of everyone to whom they were once able to communicate in their mother tongue. That tragedy is heightened by the knowledge that most language deaths are a result of oppression and discrimination.
And yet, concern for minority languages is often viewed as sentimental. Researchers on language policy have found that, “majority languages tend to be valued for being useful and for facilitating progress, while minority languages are seen as barriers to progress, and the value placed on them is seen mainly as sentimental.”
It’s true that, for the bulk of humanity, the death of minority languages is of little import. But is sentimentality really the only motivation for preserving linguistic diversity?
A rich history of utilitarianism
Speakers of endangered languages often live in remote areas with unique topographies. It is quite common for their taxonomies to distinguish between hundreds more types of flora and fauna than those known to Western science. For example, the Haunóo tribe of Mindora, an island in the Philippines, distinguishes between forty different types of soil. In Southeast Asia, some forest-dwelling tribes have discovered the medicinal properties of over sixty-five hundred plant species.
The specialized knowledge of many indigenous groups is irreplaceable. In fact, the ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery, which involves performing scientific fieldwork guided by indigenous healers, led to many of the past century’s landmark achievements in medicine. For example, the active ingredient used in chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease was discovered after healers led researchers to look at rosy periwinkle, a plant that had long been used by indigenous communities to treat diabetes. Quinine, codeine, ipecac, pseudoephedrine, and aspirin are all drugs whose discovery we owe in part to the specialized knowledge of indigenous peoples who guided ethnobotanists.
A matter of perspective
Beyond the specialized knowledge that many indigenous languages hold the key to, languages are inherently interesting to scientists. Entire fields of study are devoted to tracing human history across vast and complex webs of languages. It was once believed that the limits of one’s language defined the limits of one’s thought. This theory, called the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, has been largely rejected in favor of a more refined version, which posits that the language we speak does not set the limits of our thoughts, but it does direct our focus in certain ways.
For example, English is a tense-based language, meaning that expressions of time are inherent to its grammar. It’s nearly impossible to talk about doing something without specifying when – i.e. I went to the party (past), I’m going to the party (present), or I’ll go to the party (future). Thus, through nothing more than the basic form of our language, English speakers are consistently compelled to focus on time. This differs from Chinese, where it’s perfectly reasonable to say, ‘I go to the party,’ without defining the when. And if a Chinese speaker does want to specify the time, he or she could use a marking expression, such as, ‘I go to the party in two hours.’
Similarly, in gendered languages, such as Spanish, French or German, it’s nearly impossible to talk about somebody without mentioning their gender. Whereas in English we might say, ‘I’m going to my friend’s house,’ without specifying that friend’s gender, a Spanish speaker would be obliged to say either ‘Voy a la casa de mi amigo’ (male friend) or ‘Voy a la casa de mi amiga’ (female friend).
Thus, part of the richness of language is that it allows us to organize the world in so many unique ways. A loss of language diversity, then, is a loss of perspective. As Keyuk Gomez, the world’s last speaker of the indigenous Chilean language Selk’nam said, “One precious thing, to me, about the language is its vocabulary of words for love. They change according to the age, sex, and kinship of the speakers and the nature of the emotion. There are things you can’t say in Spanish.”
Some languages categorize the world in ways so different from our own that they are difficult to conceptualize. Perhaps recognizing this, the United States employed native Navajo speakers to create a system of message coding during the Second World War. The Japanese were never able to break it, and the celebrated ‘code talkers’ are often cited today as having helped decide the outcome of the war.
What’s wrong with sentimentality, anyway?
But do we really need utilitarian arguments to explain our impulse toward language preservation? What if it were indeed an entirely sentimental endeavor? Couldn’t the argument be made that most forms of cultural preservation are driven at least in part by sentimentalism?
We protect and preserve ancient artifacts like the Roman Colosseum and Stonehenge not because they are useful, but because they are culturally and historically significant. We fill museums with art that gives us insights into the thoughts and perspectives of the past, and we consider events like the Notre-Dame fire or the 2004 theft of The Scream to be tragic losses of our heritage that merit investing millions of dollars in.
In fact, there is something rather sentimental in the way in which people in the United States study languages as well. If the utilitarian aim of language learning is to increase the number of people with whom we can communicate, schools would benefit by funneling more resources into teaching Chinese, Arabic, Russian, or Bengali, rather than languages like French or German, which not only are spoken by fewer people, but are spoken in countries where a majority of the population already speaks English as a second language.
And yet, there are arguments for studying the languages we do, though they might largely be considered sentimental. Many Americans are descendants of German or French immigrants and are interested in these languages as a way of connecting to their heritage. It also cannot be overlooked that German and French are both status languages – they enjoy a position of cultural prestige that makes them interesting and attractive to many people.
As philosophy lecturer Rebecca Roache put it, “If minority languages are valuable partly for sentimental reasons then they are in good company.” But as we’ve already seen, they are valuable for many utilitarian reasons as well. In conclusion, I’d say the short answer is yes – dying languages are most certainly worth saving.
Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she now lives in Chicago.