Lost Your Language? Good Riddance.

by Translation Guy on July 27, 2010

A language goes extinct every twenty-two minutes. Maybe. It might be less frequent; in fact, they probably don’t go extinct but once a week or something. But once every twenty-two minutes is a much better meme. You watch. It will get around.

Whatever the rate at which languages are going extinct, when you take a language offline, a lot goes with it. Like the sum of all human knowledge. A whole way of thinking, of viewing, of knowing, lost forever, a little universe collapsing past the event horizon.  Forgotten. Or if preserved, shadows of meaning on word lists and reels of tape, unused, unfelt, unknown, lost to the hearts of man.

Efforts to stanch extinctions of linguistic, cultural, and biological life have yielded a ‘biocultural’ perspective that integrates the three,” blog Maywa Montenegro and Terry Glavin over at Seedmagazine.com. “Efforts to understand the value of diversity in a complex systems framework have matured into a science of ‘resilience.'” So we’re left with the question, “How much diversity is enough?”

I think for people who study diversity, they can’t have too much of a good thing, except for sameness. Too much sameness lacks diversity. But not everyone sees it that way.

Razib Khan, who blogs about Gene Expression on Discover, thinks all linguists on board the linguistic preservation ark are missing the boat.

“The distribution of languages and the number of speakers they have follows a power law trend, the vast majority of languages have very few speakers, and these are the ones which are going extinct.

“We are then losing communal identity, a thousand oral Shakespeare’s are turning into Beowulf’s and Epic of Gilgamesh’s, specific stories which have to be reduced to their universal human elements because a living native speaking community is gone. Let me acknowledge that there is some tragedy here. But this ignores the costs to those who do not speak world languages with a high level of fluency. The cost of collective color and diversity may be their individual poverty (i.e., we who speak world languages gain, but incur no costs).

“Language binds us to our ancestors, and to our peers, but also can separate us from others. A common language may not only be useful in a macroeconomic context, reducing transaction costs and allowing for more frictionless flow of information, but it also removes one major dimension of intergroup conflict.”

Very convenient for well-educated and affluent global citizens. Ethnic groups caught on the wrong side of the glittering edge of the planetary culture have been getting some hard usage over the last few centuries. As these groups face demographic and cultural catastrophe, preservation is the razor’s edge between assimilation and survival―or extinction. Do the preservationists respect the young indigene (person of indigenous extraction) whose avenue of access to the large culture is Alice Cooper, even if it means he spends his time learning guitar licks instead of studying Grandmother’s grammar?

Razib says that the “patchwork is being torn about, but smaller pieces are being reassembled. There are more combinations as the fuller possible parameter space is being explored, despite the decrease in the number of modes across the distributions.”

Commentor Chris T is more pointed:

“Most of what is claimed to be ‘preservation of diversity’ is moral preening and in the interest of personal gratification. Rarely is it ever taken into consideration what would actually be best for the people in question or what they want. One would note that most of the unique cultures in question are trying to adopt modern civilization and integrate themselves culturally as fast as they can.  Such advocates don’t want diversity; they want a zoo.”

Me? I like to visit the zoo, although it seems like I always end up in the Hall of Rodents at the Rat Race Exhibition.


  1. Swashy says:

    Look at Dutch. Apart from some people over the age of 60, there is now practically no such thing as a Dutch monoglot. The vast majority of the population can communicate effortlessly in English and – as we all know – the Dutch prefer speaking in English with foreigners and actively avoid their native tongue.

    English has a huge presence in Dutch media, politics, business and education. Already, you will hear groups of young Dutch people speaking some English with each other.

    Will a tipping point be reached when English starts to overtake Dutch as the language the population uses among itself? Of course, it would take a long, long time for actual knowledge of the Dutch languange to die out but I think we could see English taking over for practical purposes within the next 30 years.

  2. Chips Ahoy! says:

    It’s interesting but a new study of demographics published by Yale shows that Spanish will die in the US. The Spanish language in the USA will have the exact same destiny that the German language had back in the 18th and 19th century when Germans were changing linguistically the face of english speaking America. Apparently the study shows that hispanic immigration to the USA is set to start declining sometime around this decade as Latin America is quickly developing, Mexico’s demographics are sinking to near replacement levels and less and less people are finding it tempting to go up north like it was back in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000 …

    • Ken says:

      If present trends continue, Chips.

      Around the globe everyone wants English as a second language. How much truer for your average immigrant trying to make it in the US of A. English pays, as they says.

  3. Redbeard says:

    I think this phenomenon is, as said before, normal..this is the case of languages which do not have a strong writing system as linguists say, I think this is due to the fact that only writing can preserve a language from disapearing and also enriches it by preserving old levels or versions if i may say so…

    • Ken says:

      Redbeard, Dutch and Danish have both been mentioned on this blog as cultures that do a lot of communication outside their native language. But even if English became the language of the Dutch hearth, good ol’ Dutch wooden-shoe footprints in media and cyberspace are vast, so will live forever, or as long as Google liveth, at any rate. Of those 6500 languages, how much of each will cross the golden Internet bridge to the Olympus of the digital immortals? Those currently present all have a chance.

  4. Word Ninja says:

    The Dutch are strange in the sense they find pride in how spineless they are.

  5. J.T. says:

    This is sad. On the other hand, this is to be considered normal because it was always like that (Evolution). The only thing is that Globalization is speeding up the process. Now the question would be, where are we in this development?

  6. Cap'n says:

    By the year 2100, many linguists estimate, half of the world’s 6,912 distinct languages will be extinct. At present, 548 of them retain fewer than ninety-nine speakers… Powerful

  7. Long Plank says:

    Quebec anyone?

    The Quebecois have been in Canada for 250 years and yet they still speak french with low immigration rates.

    within 15 years the southern states will become offically bilingual and that will be that.

  8. Ken, you write: “Around the globe everyone wants English as a second language.”

    This statement begs various questions:
    1. Does “everyone” include those who already speak a form of English?
    2. What is “English” anyway? Is the legend of a common language sustainable in the modern world?
    3. To what extent is “second language English” mutually comprehensible? (e.g. the English of reasonably educated Germans, the English of reasonably educated Indonesians, the national form of English in multilingual states such as India and various African states, the descendent of pidgin English in parts of the Carribean).

    My theory is that in an age of global communication which crowds out some minority languages, there is also a contrary trend of language diversification. In other words, the Tower of Babel is still happening.

    • Ken says:

      Thanks for your questions, Victor.

      1. Everyone? Well maybe not everyone. It wasn’t like I really meant everyone. What I really meant was everyone that wouldn’t otherwise not be doing it.

      2. What is English? Hmmm. Not sure, but I know it when I hear it.

      Maybe I misunderstood the question.

      3. That Globish guy says that English language learners have lots of mutual comprehension regardless of native language, since language learners all speak the same simple English. I’ll be posting on some research that suggest that adult English learners are driving simplification of English as we speak (type).

  9. Heff says:

    Dutch may well dissapear in netherlands, but in Flanders it will not.

  10. Ah yes, I saw that coming to; back in the day the Irish were destroying the American way of life by coming in such large numbers; a century later it’s nothing but history.

    The same is happening with hispanics, the USA is an expert at absorbing millions of immigrants without any major problem!

    It did for centuries and it’s still doing it now.

  11. Yes, it’s already happening. I don’t think Dutch would die out as per se, but Dutch vocabulary will become more and more Denglish.

    Where do you draw the line and say it’s gone too far? If you read Dutch forums/ newspapers you will find it quite hard not to find English words and phrases being used. Especially in adverts… the youth can hardly speak proper Dutch anymore.

    I know this is happening too in different languages like German, French etc but it’s more frequent in Dutch.

    Have the Dutch got no pride?

  12. The Dutch are strange in the sense they find pride in how spineless they are.

  13. Sea Doc says:

    And Italian. When I was in Italy this past holiday, Engtalian was everywhere rife.

  14. If Maltese hasn’t died out in Malta, I can’t see Dutch dying in the Netherlands. The Maltese are the ultimate language traitors, the Maltese themselves consider their own language to be the language of working-class, uneducated pigs and they all aspire to speak perfect English and/or Italian, and largely abandon Maltese.

    There are pretty much no newspapers in Maltese, the only quality Maltese newspapers are in English. There is pretty much no literature in Maltese, all authors write in English, shop signs are 90% of the time in English, all education is in English and even the working language of the government is English.

    Despite how weighed Maltese life is towards English, when you visit Malta, despite being highly English-influenced, the local language used is still obviously Maltese, a semetic tongue. Despite how encouraged they have been to abandon Maltese, and how little material there is available in it, they still ultimately speak it amongst themselves.

  15. Andy Ober says:

    Strange situation in Luxemburg. Native language of Luxemburg inhabitants is Letzebuergesch dialect of German.So,French is a misapprehension in Luxemburg.

  16. Ron Barak says:

    Hebrew was on life-support for some 1800 years, used only in literature, prayer, and for communication between Jews of distant communities.
    But, lo-and-behold, the Zionist revolution occurs, Jews return to their motherland, and Hebrew is spoken in Israel by babies, and the slang invented by young people is vibrant and exciting.

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