Extinct Languages

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Latin was the language of Rome. The ancient Greek language spanned the entire empire. Every great civilization developed languages that spread throughout them, only to fall silent after they fell. Those languages were destined never to be uttered in their true form again. It seems that languages die out with the civilizations that used them – but languages are evolving and dying right now.

A Tomb of Languages

There is a difference between a dead language and an extinct one. Latin, for example is a dead language: it’s no longer the native language of any community, but it’s still in use. An extinct language has no speakers at all.

There are countless extinct languages – we only know about the ones there are records of, through surviving literature. Languages could have rapidly developed, evolved and died out prior to the invention of writing, disappearing with absolutely no trace.

There are currently over 570 known extinct languages, and that list grows steadily as global cultures merge and dissipate. But how is it happening? How can a language, even with a fully recorded writing system, just die out?

How Do Languages Die and Go Extinct?

It’s not an overnight process – cultural assimilation and language abandonment take generations while ingrained cultural traditions persist – but eventually, the dominant language overtakes.

When children speak their parents’ language, but only at home or with relatives, a language is considered vulnerable. When children no longer learn their mother tongue, a language becomes endangered. When the youngest speakers of a language are grandparents, a language is critically endangered.

Some languages undergo rapid evolution, adopting and borrowing words from other languages – like in Mexican populations living in the US, or in Gibraltar, where fully formed Spanglish has evolved from creoles of English and Spanish – giving rise to new languages. But these creoles rarely displace the major regional language, and are often seen as “degenerate and simplistic” – becoming extinct as rapidly as they develop.

Are Any Languages Dying Now?

Yes – in fact, it’s been predicted that 90% of all modern languages will be extinct by 2099. Aboriginal peoples of North and South America, Australia and parts of North Asia are experiencing a period of extreme language shift, where native tongues are no longer being passed to the next generation. Around the planet, a language goes extinct once every two weeks.

That all sounds terrifying – but there are approximately 7,000 languages, of which most are minor dialects. There’s no sign of the world’s major languages disappearing any time soon – although a day will come when a major language becomes a minor one, dwindling into endangerment and finally, extinction.

Language shift has happened throughout history. It’s still happening in the UK – from Cornish to English over a period of hundreds of years, and in Wales, where the number of speakers drops with every census. It is quite profound in China, where Mandarin is becoming dominant, except for in Hong Kong and Kowloon, where massive influence has promoted the spread of Cantonese into neighbouring areas.

In the modern world, language is dictated by economics. If the markets in China speak Mandarin, then the workforce speaks it too.

Will My Language go Extinct?

It may be that all languages will one day come to an end; how and when we can’t know for sure. But technology has preserved almost every language spoken today in intricate detail – and as long as we have audio recordings, videos, and text, those documented languages will be preserved and overcome extinction – but they may very well die as they’re displaced by the dominant language.

History has shown time and again that the most technologically advanced and most economically developed culture always wins. It’s likely that languages will ebb and flow with the ages of each empire, and dominance will sway in favour of the current leaders at any given time.

Speaking itself might soon be obsolete. We increasingly use machines to communicate, and they’re slowly beginning to talk back. As technology develops, machines could interpret our thoughts, and transmit them as data to other minds – making all language a thing of the past.

Thankfully, that’s still a big maybe – we don’t even know if human cultures will move fast enough to accept such a huge shift. So for now at least, it looks like we’re all going to keep talking.

Let’s Keep Language Alive

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