In linguistics, language death occurs when a language loses its last native speaker. By extension, language extinction is when the language is no longer known, including by second-language speakers. Other similar terms include linguicide, the death of a language from natural or political causes, and rarely glottophagy, the absorption or replacement of a minor language by a major language.
Language death is a process in which the level of a speech community's linguistic competence in their language variety decreases, eventually resulting in no native or fluent speakers of the variety. Language death can affect any language form, including dialects. Language death should not be confused with language attrition (also called language loss), which describes the loss of proficiency in a first language of an individual.
In the modern period (c. 1500 CE–present; following the rise of colonialism), language death has typically resulted from the process of cultural assimilation leading to language shift and the gradual abandonment of a native language in favour of a foreign lingua franca, largely those of European countries.
As of the 2000s, a total of roughly 7,000 natively spoken languages existed worldwide. Most of these are minor languages in danger of extinction; one estimate published in 2004 expected that some 90% of the currently spoken languages will have become extinct by 2050.
Language death is typically the final outcome of language shift and may manifest itself in one of the following ways:
- Gradual language death: slowly, over a period of time
- Bottom-to-top language death: cessation of the use of language except in special circumstances (e.g. liturgical language)
- Top-to-bottom language death: when language shift begins in a high-level environment such as the government.
- Radical language death: the disappearance of a language when all speakers of the language cease to speak the language
- Linguicide (also known as sudden death, language genocide, physical language death, biological language death)
- Language attrition: the loss of proficiency in a language at the individual level
The most common process leading to language death is one in which a community of speakers of one language becomes bilingual with another language, and gradually shifts allegiance to the second language until they cease to use their original, heritage language. This is a process of assimilation which may be voluntary or may be forced upon a population. Speakers of some languages, particularly regional or minority languages, may decide to abandon them based on economic or utilitarian grounds, in favor of languages regarded as having greater utility or prestige.
A language is often declared to be dead even before the last native speaker of the language has died. If there are only a few elderly speakers of a language remaining, and they no longer use that language for communication, then the language is effectively dead. A language that has reached such a reduced stage of use is generally considered moribund. Half of the spoken languages of the world are not being taught to new generations of children. Once a language is no longer a native language—that is, if no children are being socialized into it as their primary language—the process of transmission is ended and the language itself will not survive past the current generations.
Language death is rarely a sudden event, but a slow process of each generation learning less and less of the language until its use is relegated to the domain of traditional use, such as in poetry and song. Typically the transmission of the language from adults to children becomes more and more restricted, to the final setting that adults speaking the language will raise children who never acquire fluency. One example of this process reaching its conclusion is that of the Dalmatian language.
Consequences on grammar
During language loss—sometimes referred to as obsolescence in the linguistic literature—the language that is being lost generally undergoes changes as speakers make their language more similar to the language to which they are shifting. This process of change has been described by Appel (1983) in two categories, though they are not mutually exclusive. Often speakers replace elements of their own language with something from the language they are shifting toward. Also, if their heritage language has an element that the new language does not, speakers may drop it.
- loss of phonological contrasts;
- changes in word order;
- morphological loss, such as was seen in Scottish Gaelic in East Sutherland, Scotland (Dorian: 1978) as fluent speakers still used the historic plural formation, whereas semi-speakers used simple suffixation or did not include any plural formation at all;
- synthetic morphosyntax may become increasingly analytic;
- syntactic loss (i.e. lexical categories, complex constructions);
- loss of word-formation productivity;
- style loss, such as the loss of ritual speech;
- morphological leveling;
- analogical leveling.
Language revitalization is an attempt to slow or reverse language death. Revitalization programs are ongoing in many languages, and have had varying degrees of success.
The revival of the Hebrew language in Israel is the only example of a language's acquiring new first language speakers after it became extinct in everyday use for an extended period, being used only as a liturgical language. Even in the case of Hebrew, there is a theory that argues that "the Hebrew revivalists who wished to speak pure Hebrew failed. The result is a fascinating and multifaceted Israeli language, which is not only multi-layered but also multi-sourced. The revival of a clinically dead language is unlikely without cross-fertilization from the revivalists' mother tongue(s)."
As a response to English linguistic dominance, de-anglicisation became a matter of national pride in some places and especially in regions that were once under colonial rule, where vestiges of colonial domination are a sensitive subject. Following centuries of English rule in Ireland and English imposition of the English language, an argument for de-anglicization was delivered before the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, 25 November 1892; "When we speak of 'The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish Nation', we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English." Language was one of the features of Anglicisation in Ireland: although it never died out and became an official language after independence, Irish had lost its status as the island's principal vernacular to become a minority language during the period of British rule; similarly, in North America indigenous languages have been replaced by those of the colonists.
According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, "language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve wellbeing. There are various ethical, aesthetic, and utilitarian benefits of language revival—for example, historical justice, diversity, and employability, respectively."
Factors that prevent language death
Google launched the Endangered Languages Project aimed at helping preserve languages that are at risk of extinction. Its goal is to compile up-to-date information about endangered languages and share the latest research about them.
Anthropologist Akira Yamamoto has identified nine factors that he believes will help prevent language death:
- There must be a dominant culture that favors linguistic diversity
- The endangered community must possess an ethnic identity that is strong enough to encourage language preservation
- The creation and promotion of programs that educate students on the endangered language and culture
- The creation of school programs that are both bilingual and bicultural
- For native speakers to receive teacher training
- The endangered speech community must be completely involved
- There must be language materials created that are easy to use
- The language must have written materials that encompass new and traditional content
- The language must be used in new environments and the areas the language is used (both old and new) must be strengthened
Linguists distinguish between language "death" and the process where a language becomes a "dead language" through normal language change, a linguistic phenomenon analogous to pseudoextinction. This happens when a language in the course of its normal development gradually morphs into something that is then recognized as a separate, different language, leaving the old form with no native speakers. Thus, for example, Old English may be regarded as a "dead language" although it changed and developed into Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English. Dialects of a language can also die, contributing to the overall language death. For example, the Ainu language is slowly dying - "The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger lists Hokkaido Ainu as critically endangered with 15 speakers ... and both Sakhalin and Kuril Ainu as extinct."
The process of language change may also involve the splitting up of a language into a family of several daughter languages, leaving the common parent language "dead". This has happened to Latin, which (through Vulgar Latin) eventually developed into the Romance languages, and to Prakrit, which developed into the New Indo-Aryan languages. Such a process is normally not described as "language death", because it involves an unbroken chain of normal transmission of the language from one generation to the next, with only minute changes at every single point in the chain. Thus with regard to Latin, for example, there is no point at which Latin "died"; it evolved in different ways in different geographic areas, and its modern forms are now identified by a plethora of different names such as French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, Galician, Sardinian, Venetian, etc.
Measuring language vitality
Except in case of linguicide, languages do not suddenly become extinct; they become moribund as the community of speakers gradually shifts to using other languages. As speakers shift, there are discernible, if subtle, changes in language behavior. These changes in behavior lead to a change of linguistic vitality in the community. There are a variety of systems that have been proposed for measuring the vitality of a language in a community. One of the earliest is the GIDS (Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale) proposed by Joshua Fishman in 1991. A noteworthy publishing milestone in measuring language vitality is an entire issue of Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development devoted to the study of ethnolinguistic vitality, Vol. 32.2, 2011, with several authors presenting their own tools for measuring language vitality. A number of other published works on measuring language vitality have been published, prepared by authors with varying situations and applications in mind. These include works by Arienne Dwyer, Martin Ehala, M. Lynne Landwehr, Mark Karan, András Kornai, and Paul Lewis and Gary Simons.
- Classical language
- Cultural genocide
- Cultural hegemony
- Endangered language
- Extinct language
- International auxiliary language
- Language contact
- Language movement
- Language policy
- Language revitalization
- Language shift
- Linguistic discrimination
- Linguistic imperialism
- Linguistic purism
- Linguistic rights
- List of last known speakers of languages
- Minority language
- Native Tongue Title
- Prestige language
- Regional language
- Rosetta Project
- The Linguists (documentary film)
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- Lost Tongues and the Politics of Language Endangerment
- Languages don't kill languages; speakers do
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