As kids, many of us created our own secret languages (was that just me?) to keep secrets from our friends, parents and substitute teachers. Though, is growing up the only reasons why languages die?
Linguists love gathering data on languages, to be used to study sociolinguistics, historical linguistics and speech pronunciation. Shockingly, around the world, 4% of languages are spoken by 96% of the world’s population (Crystal, 2006). Think about that for a second — that is 7.2 billion people in total speak only 4% of known languages.
According to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, globally there are 6,784 languages that exist (Crystal, 2006). 500 of these languages have less than 100 speakers, qualifying the language as endangered. How and why do languages die?
There are multiple factors causing languages to be classified as dead. If a small community of individuals speaks a unique language, there language is at risk if they are. For example, if there is a natural disaster or contagious disease displacing or killing a community which speaks a unique language, their language may become endangered. Another factor may be a community which is at-stake if they experience unsurvivable living conditions, maybe due to climate or lack of resources. Cultural assimilation, genocide and colonialism may cause communities to move, assimilate or die, causing their language to become endangered and eventually die.
Can we revitalize a language?
Yes, languages can be brought back to life (it’s a miracle!). If a community can recognize that their language is dying, they can take the necessary actions to save it. Languages can be saved for it’s continuity by recording the language, transcribing it and documenting through films, books and dictions.
Yiddish is a fusion language of Hebrew and the geographical language of Ashkenazi (European-descending) Jews, typically Germany, Poland and Slavic countries. Prior to the Holocaust, there were over 10 million Yiddish speakers. 8,500,000 of those Yiddish speakers were murdered in the Holocaust. Yiddish is considered to be an endangered language, as most Yiddish speakers are of the elderly population. Many Jewish communities are striving to save the Yiddish language through offering Yiddish at university, organizing intensive language classes and putting on Yiddish theatre performances.
It is interesting to learn about different languages, as each language has their unique and untranslatable words. Factors such as natural disasters and contagious diseases, often cannot be controlled. Therefore it is imporant for languages to be documented. Losing a language is losing a unique cultural story.
Crystal, David. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2006. Print.