Dying languages

The world's languages are becoming extinct at an unprecedented pace. Language diversity is important socially, culturally, and scientifically, and the loss of so many languages — the vast majority of which have never been written down, let alone studied — is a tragedy for humankind.

But I think that those calling for dying languages to be "rescued" are overly optimistic at best, and patronizing at worst. They talk about people being "forced" to give up their minority languages, but the reality is usually different. The typical scenario for language death is that the young people in a minority-language group start heading to the cities in search of work. In the cities, they may speak the minority language among themselves. Their children may grow up reasonably fluent in the minority language, but speak the majority language among themselves, and more importantly to their children. Meanwhile, back on the land, only the elderly remain, and they have no one to teach the minority language to. Thus in two, or maybe three generations, the minority language is extinct.

You could say that those people were "forced" to give up the minority language, but it was economic necessity rather than the barrel of a gun that forced them. In order to rescue the minority language, you'd have to make staying on the land economically viable. And that's something that nobody can seem to manage: the Earth's population is rapidly and inexorably urbanizing.

My wife's family is a case in point. They're from Hatoma, a small island in the Yaeyama archipelago of Japan's Okinawa prefecture.

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Today, Hatoma has about 60 residents, most of whom are elderly. The young people left long ago in search of work. People have tried several times to make viable economic models there, including farming boutique crops and eco-tourism, but nothing worked.

The language spoken on Hatoma (and the other dialects of the region) is of great linguistic interest, because it retains features of archaic Japanese dating back 1,300 years or more. My wife can understand the language of Hatoma fairly well, but she doesn't speak it. I'd estimate that there are maybe ten people in the world below the age of 40 who still do so fluently. Surely, this language will be dead in one or two generations.

This is a terrible loss, and the people who grew up on the island are sad that their language is dying, but the people left the island in search of jobs and opportunity (including the chance for their children to attend high school). To them, it was a no-brainer to trade that for a language they had been taught was inferior (when my stepfather was in school, the "Japanese" teachers used to make him wear a sign around his neck every time they caught him speaking "dialect").


I imagine that the facts on the ground are much the same in most places where languages are dying. Most of them probably don't even consider the consequences to their language's future when they move off the land and to the cities, but even if they considered it, they'd think it a good trade. "Rescuing" these languages would mean (a) making it economically viable to stay on the land, and (b) dispelling the widely held beliefs that minority languages are inferior. That would be a wonderful achievement, but my unfortunate prediction is that it ain't gonna happen in time.

1 comment to Dying languages

  • Yes, this is a very sad situation, much like the loss of biodiversity.
    While I feel that this is bad for humanity, I’d love to see a very carefully argued essay showing why it’s important for us to preserve the various languages.
    Some ideas:
    1) We all need a sense of identity and languages greatly contribute to that. Identity from divestity, even if you dont speak the language: your neighbour in your country contributes to your identity.
    2) There are stories vehicled by these languages we might lose.
    3) The languages are often richer than we think and show up some interesting mechanisms.
    4) Diversity is actually a historical indicator of how your country came to be.
    any others???

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