Language death

Comment to a Facebook post and yes, I know it’s dull.

The head of the Assembly of First Nations is calling for the nearly 60 indigenous languages spoken in Canada to be declared official along with English and French, an expensive proposition but one that he says is becoming more urgent as the mother tongues of aboriginal peoples disappear.

Perry Bellegarde, who was elected National Chief of the AFN last fall, agrees it would not be easy to require translations of all indigenous languages to be printed on the sides of cereal boxes and milk cartons.

“That would be the ultimate goal,” Mr. Bellegarde said in an interview on Wednesday at the three-day annual general meeting of the AFN, Canada’s largest indigenous organization. “But let’s do small steps to get there.”

The problem is, if course, that perhaps ten of those languages are spoken in the home by more than a thousand people, and it’s in the home that a language survives. Some of those languages might be down to single digits of users. I know, by the way, that there are already official aboriginal languages in parts of Canada, as here in the United States.

And as in the US, there are dozens of immigrant languages that have more speakers than nearly all the aboriginal languages except Cree, I think, and Inuit. You can see the problem. If language rights are defined as a First Nation right only then you can declare aboriginal languages official without doing the same for immigrant tongues. However, as the call for official status for aboriginal languages is based on the UNESCO declaration of language rights, the same protections apply to immigrant languages as well….

Language death (one of linguistics’ more dramatic terms) is a worldwide problem, and one that has existed since the origin of language itself. Each extinction is a bitter loss, as every language has ways of viewing the world that are distinctive. About half of the world’s 6000 languages will be gone by 2100. Social media, though, might keep some around a bit longer. This is not a first world nations versus third and fourth world nations either, though it tends to be presented that way. Europe has at least thirty languages on the verge of extinction, some by the century’s end, including some with just one remaining speaker. And a couple European languages disappeared in the last few years (one in Latvia, another, a variant of Scots Gaelic, in Scotland). Throughout the world small languages die out as much larger ones spread. This is a world wide phenomenon, and across all kinds of language families.

One of the problems is that as a rule the smaller the language, the more complex the grammar tends to be*. Languages simplify as they expand. Brazilian Portuguese has shed many of the rules of Portuguese in Portugal, for example. And Portuguese has obliterated aboriginal languages throughout Brazil. Spanish has done the same. And French. Russian. Hindi. Han Chinese. Swahili. Tagalog. Latin. Quechua. Aramaic. Sumerian. And of course English, which like all the others I just mentioned, is typically easier to learn to get by in than the aboriginal languages it replaces, though much of the specificity of other tongues is lost**. (It is now–Old English would not have been so easy.) And English has a vastly larger vocabulary, a richness that seeps into other languages with fewer words. English nouns (or any language’s nouns) can be adopted without altering the language the word is being adopted into. Le hot dog. La hamburguesa. But adopted verbs too often turn into verb phrases and into sentences. You can hear this with bilingual people all the time. English nouns dropped into the middle of Spanish sentences, retaining Spanish grammar, but switching to English when they use English verbs. I think once people begin using another language’s verbs is when the problem really starts. That is how so many languages begin to disappear. (This is based on personal observation, I haven’t read this, so it’s not authoritative.)

Obviously the immersion in media spoken in a larger language is a leading cause, but keep in mind that it will not always cause a language to lose speakers. Languages died long before the invention of mass media. Languages have been disappearing since language began.

One of my favorite books ever is Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler. A brilliant work, I’ve read it a couple times. A history of the comings and goings of the great languages. English is having its day now. It too shall pass.

.Notes:

* Pidgins and creoles being obvious exceptions.

** For example, in the Australian Kalaw Lagaw Yathe language, there are tenses that distinguish between the remote past, the recent past, the today past, the present, the today/near future and the remote future. And there are pronouns designating I, you and I, we two (not you), we (including you), we (not you), you (singular), you two, you (plural), he, she, they two, and they. It was spoken by maybe a thousand people a decade ago, but it is being gradually supplanted by a creole called Brokan (as in Broken English), with only half as many pronouns. The specificity of Kalaw Lagaw Yathe is sacrificed for a creole that can be spoken by a wide population of aboriginal people in the region who also had their own languages. “Broken English” began as a pidgin that served, as all pidgins do, as a lingua franca between peoples who had difficulty communicating with people speaking a different language. This has probably happened thousands of times since language began perhaps 200,000 years ago.

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