Have you ever wondered if there could be an international language? Mango’s Head Linguist Lilia Mouma addresses this question in a 2-part blog post. Make sure to check back for part 2 next week.
Part 1: How and Why Are languages Abandoned and Lost
by Lilia Mouma, Head Linguist, Mango Languages
Scientists estimate that at around 8,000 BC there were about 20,000 languages. According to the 1996 edition of the Ethnologue.org, there are 6,703 living languages in the world, where by “living” we mean that there is at least one speaker of the language. It is estimated that about one language dies every 14 days and about 25 languages die in a year. By the end of 2100, about half of these nearly 6,500 languages will have died, most of them entirely undocumented. It is also worth noting that, of these languages, 83 are spoken by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the others face extinction, and at a very fast rate.
In the whole history of human language, there were several causes that led to language abandonment and loss, and they can be narrowed down to three: a) a conscious choice to abandon one’s language because the adoption of another one has more prosperous prospects b) forced abandonment of one’s language for political reasons and c) lack of timely action to keep up with the changes.
An example of the first one is urbanization – or emigration: when people go to the city to find a better job, they start speaking its dialect because this is the way to take advantage of the benefits the city has to offer. This hope for better economic prospects leads people to not only abandon their language but in cases to go even further and force their children to learn only the new language. What is hidden behind this decision though is that people were led to believe that the only way to success was to move away from what was valued in their community and adopt those things that would make them better citizens in the new community. Most importantly, they were led to believe that their language and culture were inferior and worthless; they were made to lose their self-esteem.
An example of the second cause is the conquest of other nations and the imposition of the conqueror’s language through compulsory education. Here again, despite the efforts of people to keep their language, the worst enemy is the admission that the conqueror’s culture is superior.
As for the third case, this is mainly the reason so many languages go extinct today. The world changes and languages must adapt to change, and they don’t. Sometimes the pace is very fast.
That said, we must also consider the fact that in all of these cases people could in principle keep their language. Don’t we have so many examples of immigrants keeping both languages, their native one and their adopted one? People could have realized the danger their language faces with the rapid changes. So, we could say that the decision to abandon a language, or the result of a language loss depends ultimately on its speakers. As the veteran word-watcher and Times columnist Philip Howard said. “Language is the only absolutely true democracy. It’s not what professors of linguistics or academics or journalists [or politicians, I would add] say, but what people do. If children in the playground start using ‘wicked’ to mean terrific then that has a big effect.”
In a next post we will talk about what conditions exist today and whether these conditions can lead to the abandonment and loss of several major languages and to the final prevalence of one language.