Loss of languages speaks volumes about changing times

The Javanese language is in decline. EPA/Adi Weda

The manifesto of the Foundation for Endangered Languages states, quite accurately, that “There is agreement among linguists that over half of the world’s languages are not being passed on to the next generation. We are living at the point in human history where, within two generations, most languages in the world will die out.”

This may seem to be an incredulous claim, but the mechanism of language loss is really very simple: shift happens.

Parents make a decision — often conscious — to use a language other than their mother tongue when they speak with their children.

For example, recent migrants to Australia may favour the use of English in the home as it gives their children the best hope of integrating into the new society.

English becomes the children’s first language, and while they may retain a passive (listening) knowledge of their parents’ mother tongue, they may not achieve a full speaking knowledge of the language.

Thus they will not use it with their own children who in turn may not achieve even a passive knowledge of their grandparents’ first language.

In two generations, the language is dead — within that family, in that particular context.

When that same process operates on a much larger scale, across whole speech communities, then the language itself is under threat.

It is hard to imagine that a community of millions of speakers of a language could lose that language in a few generations, but it is happening. We can see the signs.

At the 2000 census, there were over 84 million speakers of Javanese, as reported by the Ethnologue.

Surely a language with so many speakers is secure? Unfortunately not.

In 2000 there were some 24 million speakers of Indonesian but this official language is coming to dominate, and in some large towns and cities children in primary school speak Indonesian rather than Javanese by choice, even in Javanese class. On current trends, Javanese will be lost in the cities, but may persist in rural villages.

But it is conceivable that within a few generations a language with tens of millions of speakers might cease to be spoken altogether, unless the situation is recognised, parents understand that their attitudes and speech behaviour make a difference, and serious language planning policy for endangered languages is developed by government.

For small languages with only a few hundreds or thousands of speakers, the future is bleak.

Already many of the world’s languages are not spoken by children.

Why do we care?

The loss of more than half of the extant diversity of this uniquely human artefact represents the most catastrophic loss of heritage in human history.

Each language is unique. It serves as the glue that binds together the community of its speakers, reflects their world view (of both the social and natural worlds), and in its words, stories, songs, and manner of ways of speaking, serves as the repository of the cultural, intellectual and artistic life of that community.

Losing languages, we lose windows onto different worlds, different ways of understanding the world, different ways of understanding ourselves, different ways of (reflecting on) being human.

It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of that loss — unless perhaps you are the last speaker.

We have been privileged to have worked with the last fluent speakers of languages, people who had an urgent sense of the burden they carried, who knew that when they died the accumulated knowledge of uncounted generations of their ancestors would very likely die with them, that no voice would ever again speak the beautiful words of their language and light up the night with the stories, songs and poetry that had been until so recently so much a part of the world.

Linguists are doing what they can to make physical records of as much as possible, and in some very small way can ease the personal burden of the last speakers, but do not imagine that we are holding back the tide.

Surely language loss has happened before.

Language change is constant, communities have shifted languages, languages have died. We know of lost languages from ancient written records, Hittite, Etruscan, Basque’s relatives. Why is it so different now?

The scale of loss is unprecedented and is a natural consequence of a changing human world that in the last few milennia has been leaving behind its hunter gatherer past, and in the past few centuries has been increasingly leaving behind its rural agricultural settings for the metropolis.

Language diversity once largely understandable in terms of a spatial matrix (regional dialect differentiation) may be becoming less important than differences reflecting the complex social matrices of class, ethnicity, nationality.

The world grows smaller as global networks expand. In the face of this, it is perhaps only natural that the small languages of surviving hunter gatherer communities or small scale, once relatively sedentary agricultural communities might disappear, as they are doing in their thousands.

We need not fear that the whole world will come to speak one language.

Humans value their in-group identity too much for that and there will always be the strong pressure to use language differences to differentiate oneself from others.

We might expect a new multilingualism with a few super-large languages and a diversity of sub-varieties of these, perhaps not all mutually intelligible.

But the dynamics of linguistic diversity are also changing and therein lies another potential loss.

Why do linguists care? We are as saddened as any at the loss of human heritage but we are concerned also by the loss to science.

The diversity of the world’s languages (and of the cultural settings in which languages are used) is our laboratory for seeking to understand the limits of the possible.

We want to work out what is universal to all human languages and what the constrained parameters for variation in human language might be.

How much of this uniquely human phenomenon is innate, how much of what is universal might be the product of universal human contexts of social interaction and learning?

We also want to understand our linguistic past.

The extant diversity of languages is a product of human history and by seeking to understand the dynamics of language change we can hope to reconstruct something of the social history of speakers of languages.

In doing this we rely to a large extent on what Labov calls the uniformitarian principle; we assume that the changes that happened in the past are due to the same processes we see operating around us today.

But we must be careful in applying the lessons about language change learned in modern cities to pre-urban settings. The nature of language change is changing.

Once we have lost, as we inevitably will, thousands of small languages that arose in hunter gatherer and agricultural societies, and lose the opportunity to observe and understand the nature of language change in such societies, we will have lost forever a window into human history.