So what\'s lost when a language dies?
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski
Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
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Jan 3, 2003

Many nations of the world have a unique tongue of their own which was shaped

by their nation\'s character.

However, today at least 3,000 out of 6528 tongues are endangered, seriously

endangered or dying in many parts of the world due to international

suppression, the unification of related languages, and economic isolation

and so on.

21 February 2002 was the 3rd \"International Mother Language Day\"

that UNESCO appointed to encourage the multitude of languages throughout the

world. Worldwide liguists attended UNESCO\'s International Mother Language

Day anniversary in Paris.

The \"Atlas of the World\'s Languages in Danger of Disappearing\" which was

published for the \"International Mother Language Day\" showed minority race\'s

language in danger. Experts generally consider a community\'s language to be

\"endangered\" when at least 30 per cent of its children no longer learn it

The Atlas says about 50 European languages are in danger. Some, like various

Saami (Lappish) tongues, spoken in Scandinavia and northern Russia, are

regarded as seriously endangered or moribund. France has 14 that are

seriously endangered. In Siberia, in the Russian Federation, nearly all the

40 or so local languages are disappearing. In Europe, minority languages

have been the target of repressive policies, though they have recently found

advocates. Only a few countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, have

encouraged multilingualism for any length of time. Norway has many dialects,

officially using two kinds of tongue : Nynorsk and Riksmal or Bokmal. 70% of

Switzerland uses German; 30% French; 10% Italian etc. It hasn\'t a unified

official language.

In Asia, the situation is uncertain in many parts of China. The Atlas says

the pressure from Chinese is especially strong in the northeast and

northwest, western Xinjiang and the far south province of Yunnan. By

contrast, on the Indian sub-continent, where there is extensive and

well-catalogued linguistic diversity, most languages have remained alive

thanks to bilingual or multilingual government policies

The Pacific region - which includes Japan, Taiwan (China), the Philippines,

Insular Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia - contains more

than 2,000 living languages, a third of the world total. Papua New Guinea

alone counts at least 820, a world record for linguistic density. The Atlas

says the region\'s languages are generally alive and well. But Australia, New

Caledonia and Taiwan are three crisis areas.

In Australia, where Aborigines were forbidden to speak their 400 or so

languages until the 1970s, a record number have recently disappeared or are

in danger. In case of Australia, about one million of natives lived before

Englishmen settled. The English ousted the natives whom they considered

barbarian by arms as Americans similarly ousted native Indian populations.

After that the Australian government carried out a native assimilation

policy from 1920 to 1970 in order to assimilate them into white culture. As

a result, many native\'s tongue have disappeared or are in danger.

Africa is linguistically the least-known continent. Many of its governments

encourage the use of the major African languages, such as Swahili or even

the colonial languages.

In North America, very few Inuit Eskimo languages in the Arctic have

survived the pressure from English and French. For several years now, Canada

has been working to save these languages, along with 104 Amerindian tongues

that survived. In the United States, less than 150 Indian languages have

survived out of the several hundred that were spoken there before the

arrival of the Europeans. All are endangered and many are moribund.

Language is the transmission of people\'s thoughts and feelings phonetically

or through letters. Mother tongues uniquely express a group of people\'s

social and geographical peculiarities and is the most common medium through

which national consciousness is strengthened. There are natural benifits

which arise with the adoption of official languages as different nations can

conveniently gain a greater understanding of one another. But language

contains a nation\'s valuable individual culture and is an inheritance from

previous generations. Without the preservation of language, a race\'s

identity is also in danger of disappearing. While necessary, official

languages will be used but should not result in the loss of one\'s mother


Language is a cultural inheritance that all humans should try to defend, as

Korean defended the Korea language (Hangul) against the aggression of the

Japanese Empire.


There are some common misconceptions about languages. One misconception is

that we should encourage minority languages to disappear because it\'s

languages that promote hatred and dissension and war in the world. That\'s

wrong. The two worst cases of countries collapsing in warfare today are the

former Yugoslavia and Somalia. In the former Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats

and Bosnians and Herzogovinans united by a common language (Serbo-Croat) are

at each others throats. In Somalia, which is ethnically and linguistically

one of the most homogenous countries in Africa, strife has reached the point

among these peoples of common language that central government has vanished.

Instead, the stable, multi-ethnic countries today are ones like Switzerland

and Finland, where each ethnic group is strongly supported in retaining its

own language.

There\'s another common misconception about language, which is that we should

get rid of minority languages because we need a common language to

communicate with each other. Yes, we do need a common language to

communicate with each other, but that doesn\'t prevent our having additional

languages: being bi-lingual. Nobody is suggesting that white Americans be

forced to learn Navajo. Instead, the suggestion is that Navajos should be

permitted or encouraged to learn Navaujo as well as English. We forget how

normal bi-lingualism is in the world.


\"I do not believe that language entirely determines the way you think,\" says

Luisa Maffi, president of Terralingua, a Washington, D.C.-based organization

promoting linguistic and biological diversity. But, she says, \"The language

you\'re most familiar with is the one you\'re most accustomed to thinking in

terms of.\"

Maffi is a renowned scholar of languages. Her background in linguistics led

her to Somalia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where she worked with a

group of Italian and Somali linguists to create a dictionary of the Somali

language. \"Studying words and their meaning gets into a tremendous study of

cultural knowledge,\" she says, adding that the focuses of a culture are

often embedded in the language.

It\'s also matter of personal experience for Maffi, who herself is

multilingual. She grew up in Italy, speaking Italian, but she also speaks

Spanish, French, and English. She still speaks Italian with her family,

which allows her to retain ties to her native culture. \"But if I had stopped

speaking Italian, I might have forgotten a lot more about my native

culture,\" she says. \"The more you become detached from your language,

background, heritage, it\'s less likely you\'ll be able to retain that

cultural perspective. It\'s pretty evident that there are costs and benefits.

One is not necessarily able to maintain the full complement of a native

worldview when you go from one language to another, one way of life to

another. It might be that you talk about cars and movies rather than the

plant and animal world or the spirit world.\"

But how can you tell when a language is endangered? According to Vanishing

Voices, a book about the extinction of languages written by Daniel Nettle

and Suzanne Romaine, of the estimated 5,000 to 6,700 languages that exist

today throughout the world, at least half will become extinct over the next

100 years. In 1492 when Columbus arrived in the region of the United States,

linguists believe, there were some 300 languages spoken. Only 175 are still

spoken today, and many of those appear to be just a generation away from


When speakers start to abandon a language, Maffi says, it undergoes a

process of simplification in syntax, forms of speech, the composition of

words, sounds, vocabulary. \"There is an overall loss of features internal to

the language itself,\" she says. \"There is a cultural knowledge that is

embedded, that is transmitted, that is created through language. As people

stop speaking the language, stop learning it, it is difficult--but not

impossible--to transfer cultural knowledge to a new culture. But there is

much that is lost.\"

Still, she continues, \"Languages change all the time. How do you know when

something is not just a \'normal\' change, that it\'s the beginning of the loss

of the language?\"....

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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
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750 Extinct and Endangered Languages Jan 3, 2003

No one knows exactly how many languages exist in the world today but best

estimates place the figure around 6800. Roughly 1,000 are spoken in the

Americas (15%), 2,400 in Africa (35%), 200 in Europe (3%), 2,000 in Asia

(28%) and, perhaps, 1,200 in the Pacific (19%). Keep in mind that only about

a quarter of the languages and few dialects have writing systems and not all

languages have even been \"discovered\" by Western linguistics. Most

linguists, however, agree that half of the world\'s languages are endangered;

many fear that 90% will disappear by the end of this century. The important

points to keep in mind are these: (1) large numbers of languages, probably

the majority, are in danger of extinction and (2) many more have not yet

been described in grammars and dictionaries.

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Local time: 04:49
English to German
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The languages of the world Jan 4, 2003

\"The languages of the world\" by Kenneth Katzner seems to be another good book about how many languages exist and where they are spoken. I just read about it today and thought it might be a good resource.



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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
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Thank you Birgit Jan 7, 2003

Another book, \"Language Death\" by David Crystal is here:

On pp. 7-8 Crystal also briefly discusses the distinction between a language and a dialect.

[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-07 16:27]

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