The Death of Language

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Why languages die and why some are born again.

Most people will be familiar with the concept of a dead language, but what does it actually mean for a language but what does it actually mean for a language to be “dead”, and what factors cause it to happen?


Firstly we need to make the distinction between dead and extinct languages. A dead language is a language which has no native speakers alive in the world, the most commonly given example being Latin. An extinct language, however, not only has no native speakers, but in fact has no speakers at all or is no longer in use. It is more difficult to find a clear cut example of an extinct language, but most people would have considered Egyptian Hieroglyphics to have been a dead language due to that the fact that, until the discovery and study of the Rosetta Stone, there was no one alive who could decipher it.


So what causes language death?  Well, a huge number of factors it would seem.  Language death can happen gradually, or it can happen very quickly.  It can be imposed from the top down, or it can develop from the bottom up.


Language death can happen gradually when a community of speakers acquires a second language, which then slowly becomes used in place of the original or “heritage” language. This process happens over generations, as parents eventually stop teaching their children the heritage language, and then it dies as they do. Language death can also happen gradually where the language does not actually “die” as such, but where it evolves and changes into other languages. Take Latin again as an example.  There is no definitive point at which Latin can be said to have died, rather it merely developed into the various romance languages that are in common use today, such as Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian etc.


Language death can happen suddenly due to some sort of momentous event which wipes out the population who speak it, such as genocide, disease or natural disaster.  This form of language death is generally less common than the gradual degradation.


Sometimes languages are wiped out from the top down, i.e. where the government of a population decides, for whatever reason, to change the official language of the country, and subsequent generations then grow up wanting to speak this new language for reasons of social and economic status.  Throughout history, governments, particularly conquering governments, have tried to eliminate minority languages, both for ease of administration and to help impose the conquerors’ social and cultural values on the newly invaded populace. This process can happen in reverse, where a population begins to use a new language on the everyday level to replace a previous one, for whatever reason, and the government is eventually forced to recognise it.


Unlike with us mortals, a language being dead is not necessarily the end.  Language revitalisation is the process or attempting to slow or reverse language death, and has been carried in in many cases with some success. Often populations want to revitalise dead languages to which they have a historical or cultural link in order to help define and to promote their identity.  Some examples of successful language revitalisation include some of the Gaelic languages such as Irish, Welsh and Cornish, as well as some North American indigenous languages such as Cherokee.  Most of these languages have a reasonable and growing number of speakers, and indeed some even have new native speakers, who have been taught the language from infancy.  Language revitalisation is not a speedy process, and primarily takes place through education in schools, as well as the promotion of public awareness through means such as the introduction of bilingual road signs.


So in summary, yes, languages do “die”, but it is all part of the ever changing and evolving process that is language.  And if you have the means and the motivation, no language is ever gone forever.

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