Another Kind of Extinction

How many of the world’s languages can you name? No, seriously, try it out.  Take out a piece of paper and just write until your brain cannot produce another language. My guess is that you have about twenty or thirty languages, maximum, and most of those came from taking country names and adding the appropriate suffix. If you named thirty, then congratulations: That’s a staggering 0.4 percent of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages.

Human communication and language is a wondrous achievement. Unfortunately, many of these languages are dying out, due mainly to globalization and the worldwide reduction to fewer and fewer linguae francae. In fact, within a century, more than half of the world’s 7,000 languages are likely to be extinct, and once a language is gone, there is no way to bring it back completely. Language extinction poses a grave cultural threat to our species, and we should take far stronger stances and measures for ensuring their preservation.

Not many people may be aware of this, but there is a lot of scientific knowledge that is only available in certain languages. K. David Harrison, a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, summarizes the situation nicely: “80 percent of species have been undiscovered by science, but that doesn't mean they're unknown to humans, because the people who live in those ecosystems know the species intimately and they often have more sophisticated ways of classifying them than science does.” An ocean-fairing people, for instance, could possibly have encoded in their language very specific—and still unknown to science—knowledge that has allowed them to cross thousands of miles of ocean in ways we do not understand.

Or, on a more light-hearted note, consider Tshiluba, a language spoken in southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tshiluba speakers have a word some linguists have deemed most untranslatable: ilunga, meaning someone ready to forgive any transgression the first time, tolerate it the second, but neither forgive nor tolerate the third.

Language is also an intimate link to one’s culture, family, and religion. There is nothing quite like communicating in your native language, no matter how advanced you might be in two, four, or eight others. Imagine if, today, you suddenly had to switch to a new language for the rest of your life: How much would you miss out in terms of communicating and expression with your family? Or consider the religious ties language has. It is not uncommon for some Native American communities to use their ancestral tongues to pray and “speak” with their deceased family members. Once the language is gone, so, too, is their link to their ancestors.

The majority of the world’s languages are spoken by less than one thousand people now, and they are generally only the elderly members of their respective communities. The children, recognizing the usefulness of learning the dominant language of the greater community, feel no need to learn the language of their home, simultaneously alienating the older generation and helping one more language disappear. It is not the children’s fault—more often than not, societal pressures force young people to learn the more widely-spoken languages if they want a chance at success and wealth.

Scientifically, this is a lot of data to be lost for the linguistic community, as well because in general, the languages that are disappearing are precisely the languages that are also the most poorly documented. Every language contains a world of unique information and offers insight into the mechanisms that dictate language use and structure. And endangered languages are not only wildly different from more widely-spoken ones, but they also tend to be much more complex and are thus uniquely poised to provide valuable insights into human language and universal grammar. Perhaps the most direct link linguistics has to our culture is digital now—computational linguistics is a growing field (think Siri), and every language that is lost could potentially hold undiscovered keys to breakthroughs in improving technological language.

There is no reason that languages should die. There are almost seven billion people on earth, and every person has the capacity to learn any language. One method to save languages is to simply transport native speakers of an endangered language to a community with a lot of people. Teach children these languages (the younger, the better and, if possible, babies), and within a generation, the numbers will speak for themselves (pun intended). Linguists should be sent in large numbers to the communities where this is not an option so that they can write grammars and record the remaining speakers. Through this, at least, we will not lose everything.  Other research can wait until this task is achieved.

We have so much to gain by preserving the world’s linguistic diversity—and even more to lose with language extinction. Once a language no longer has native speakers, nuances in grammar, pronunciation, and semantics will disappear with no hope to recover them. The world must turn its attention to preserving such an essential aspect of humanity soon, or we will all lose something special.

Paul C. Castrigano ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a linguistics concentrator in Dunster House.