Disappearing Languages

According to many reports, a language becomes extinct every two weeks, on average, and over the next century, up to 90% of the world’s languages will cease to be spoken.

This is an oft-repeated story, but is it true?

According to Mike Campbell of Glossika, the actual data on language death tells a different story. He wrote a blog post about this, and made a video:

If a language dies every two weeks, you would expect an average of 26 to die each year, and 260 each decade. This is not what is happening at the moment, and new languages are even being discovered. Or at least forms of speech that were formerly classified as dialects are being reclassified as separate languages.

These the languages that have become extinct since 2008. The dates given are for when the last known native speakers of these languages died.

  • Eyak (I·ya·q), a Na-Dené language that was spoken in south central Alaska in the USA until 2008. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Bidyara, a Pama-Nyngan language that was spoken in Queensland in Australia until 2008. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Pataxó (Pataxó Hã-Ha-Hãe), a Maxakalían language that was spoken in the Bahia region of Brazil, until 2009.
  • Kora (Aka-Kora), a Great Andamanese language that was spoken in the Andaman Islands, a part of India until 2009.
  • Nyawaygi, a Pama-Nyngan language that was spoken in the northeast of Queensland in Australia until 2009.
  • Bo (Aka-Bo), a Great Andamanese language that was spoken in the Andaman Islands, a part of India until 2010.
  • Cochin Portuguese creole, an Indo-Portuguese creole that was spoken on Vypeen Island in Cochin in the state of Kerala in southern India until 2010.
  • Pazeh, an Northwest Formosan language that was spoken in central Taiwan until 2010. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Lower Aranda / Lower Arrernte (Alenjerntarrpe), a Pama–Nyungan language that was spoken in the Northern Territory of Australia until 2011.
  • Holikachuk (Doogh Qinag), a Northern Athabaskan language that was spoken in the village of Holikachuk (Hiyeghelinhdi) on the Innoko River in central Alaska until 2012.
  • Upper Chinook (Kiksht), a Chinookan language that was spoken along the Colombia River in Oregon in the USA until 2012. Efforts are being made to revitalise the language.
  • Dhungaloo, a Pama–Nyungan that was spoken in Queensland in Australia until 2012. The current status of this language is not certain
  • Yurok (Puliklah), an Algic language that was spoken in Northern California until 2013. It is currently being revived.
  • Livonian (Līvõ kēļ), a Finnic language that was spoken in Latvia until 2013, and which is being revived.
  • Klallam (Nəxʷsƛʼayʼəmúcən), a Salishan language that was spoken in Washington State in the USA, and in neighbouring areas of Canada, until 2014. It is currently being revived.
  • Thao (Thaw a lalawa), a Northern Formosan language that was spoken in central Taiwan until 2014, or maybe more recently. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Wichita, a Caddoan language that was spoken in Oklahoma in the USA until 2016. Efforts are being made revive it.
  • Mandan (Nų́ų́ʔetaa íroo), a Siouan language that was spoken on Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota in the USA until 2016. Efforts are being made revive it.

That’s a total of 18, plus a couple of dialects I haven’t listed, over the past decade – slightly less than the predicted 260. Moreover, while there are no native speakers of these languages, efforts are being made to revive some of them.

More information about recently extinct languages, language death and language revitalization:

9 thoughts on “Disappearing Languages

  1. Hi Simon,

    I know that many people, from linguists to anthropologists, view the disappearance of a language as a bad thing. In principle I suppose that is true, but I have difficulty being overly concerned about it. Languages exist to serve a purpose; they are not invented “for the fun of it”. If cultural groups die out, leaving no need to speak their native language, to me the greater loss is that of the people, not the language. I feel the need to ask, is having an extraordinary number of languages actually a benefit? None of us live in a vacuum. We are part of a larger but divided world, and we need to communicate with each other. The more languages there are, the greater those divisions are magnified. For instance, suppose the language of some indigenous people in South America died out because the speakers were assimilated into Spanish. Is that actually a bad thing? By speaking the majority language, it opens up access and opportunity to business, government and (yes) to a prevaling culture. And, in our modern times, access to the Internet. Are those things bad? For people to cling to a tiny language population only for the sake of tradition and habit might not necessarily be in their long term best interests. Perhaps all people react the same way, that their language is “theirs” and they don’t want to change, no matter how much a change could possibly help them. (I can’t say I am any different; I couldn’t imagine giving up English.)

    I recognize this is a controversial subject, and their is no obvious right answer. I invite your views on this.

  2. @Robert:
    What you write sounds as though speaking a majority language implied not speaking another one, while in fact half of the world population speak more than one language.

    I think Mike Campbell alludes to this when he says that languages most often vanish in countries like Australia and the US — which aren’t monolingual at all, but often pretend to be, with bilinguals being viewed as, errrr…, aliens.

    BTW, humans as well as languages are extremely adaptable, so there is no immediate relationship between culture and language. Luxembourgers typically use Luxembourgish, French, and German on a daily basis (Portuguese is also widespread), while the Yugur haven’t had a shared language for many centuries: some speak a Turkic language (Western Yugur), others a Mongolic language (Eastern Yugur), and yet others a Sinitic language (some variety of Chinese); Tibetan speakers are comparatively rare.

  3. I was not intentionally implying that most people are monolingual, although living in the US sort of imposes that mind-set on people. Few Americans are multi-lingual, simply because they don’t need to be. I wouldn’t assert that is either good or bad, it’s simply the way it is. (It’s probably “bad” in the sense that knowing other languages would provide a wider perspective. And in my area, there are a fair number of Spanish speakers and some others.)

    I suspect people are adaptable when they are forced to be. That explains why it is common for Europeans to often know many languages but few Americans know anything but English. When you live in an area when countries are relatively small and borders are seldom more than an hour’s drive apart, there is great need and value in being multi-lingual, whereas in the States one can drive literally thousands of miles without ever needing anything but English. Likely it is similar, though not exactly the same, in Central and South America, where if the only language you knew was Spanish you could get along pretty well.

  4. Many people speak minority / endangered languages, and the majority language(s) of the region of country where they live. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

    Languages are tools for communication, and also markers of identity and of belonging to a particular group. If your language dies, you loose parts of your identity, history and culture, and this can have significant negative effects.

    According to Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide:

    “Language loss, and the consequent lack of cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty and spirituality – not to mention the dependence on the coloniser’s tongue – unfortunately increase the phenomena of disempowerment, self-loathing and suicide.”

    “I have noticed, qualitatively, that language reclamation is often empowering for those involved. It strengthens one’s soul and validates one’s pride, dignity and sense of cultural heritage,”

    Source: https://phys.org/news/2015-07-language-revival-social-mental-health.html

  5. That’s right, languages play a major rôle as markers of identity. Even using some particular English dialect or accent can be a powerful marker of local identity.

    But here again, there’s a huge difference between the Old and the New World:

    “It would be no great exaggeration to say that greater differences in pronunciation are discernible in the north of England between Trent and Tweed than in the whole of North America.”
    Simeon Potter
    Cited from Bill Bryson’s “Mother Tongue”

    A few years ago I met an American college student who told me that the Dutch-speaking part of Europe was so small there couldn’t be much dialectal variation. Well. The truth is: Quite a number of dialects that are commonly considered Dutch are so different that they are even mutually unintelligible. Of course this is something that has a considerable impact on their speakers’ identity, and the consequences of losing those “dialects” would be profound.

  6. I would certainly not suggest that for a cultural group to lose its native speakers and/or die out was ever a good thing. The problem is that it’s going to happen whether people like it or not. On Simon’s web site, I have seen cases where a small language having maybe 500 or 1,000 speakers is known by many different names, sometimes 5 or even 10 different names. The fact that such a situation exists is evidence that the language once was much greater and widespread than currently. You would never have a handful of people refer to their own language by 10 different names; it wouldn’t make any sense. So, the process by which such languages have diminished is one that has happened over a long time. It is something that likely involves multiple causes, be they social, political, commercial or military, and probably can’t be easily fixed, no matter how much scientists, sociologists, linguists and other well-wishers might want to help.

    The biggest problem to saving or reviving a language is overcoming the fact that the language simply might not be needed any more. For instance, to me, I could never give up English because it’s all I have and all I know. I need it. I would be totally lost if I couldn’t speak or understand other people in English. In contrast, speakers of a small language might be very fond of it and hold it as personally important, but if the world around them doesn’t need it, there might not be enough “inertia” to sustain it. To give an example, the language Livonian is extinct. There may be an academic interest in reviving it, but how many people are there that actually *need* to speak Livonian? If someone were to invest the effort to learn and become fluent in Livonian, what would the “payback” be for all that work? Unlike linguists like Simon, most people would not make that effort merely as an interesting intellectual exercise, simply because it’s too much work, and there is no perceivable gain from it. If I use myself as an example, if I learned Spanish I could talk with local speakers of it in Michigan, or I might be able to use French in Canada, but why would I learn Livonian? There is just no reason that I can think of.

    I wish nothing but the best for anyone wishing to revive or save a language, but I feel that efforts are also needed to assist people in minority languages to learn other languages – not by force, which is an abuse of authority – but as a voluntary effort to help people transition to the day when the minority language they use fades away. Efforts should also be made to fully document, as much as possible, minority languages that are endangered so that future revivals would even be possible. That would mean a robust description of the alphabet(s), syntax and grammar, and copies of major literary works, and of course a publishing of these materials on the internet so that this information is not lost to future generations as native speakers decline and die out.

  7. Language is not just a tool for communication, the history and cultural environment of the speakers is of vital importance to us all.
    I must admit that as a speaker of various modern languages and a student of Phoenician, Aramaic and other so called dead languages I am rather prejudiced, but let us not forget that originally we all came from the same place and possibly spoke a common language which became the myriad of other tongues spoken by us.

  8. Whilst there’s definitely scientific value in studying these languages before they are lost, ultimately having more languages is inefficient when it comes to the greater scope of things.

    If people all speak the same language as a second language, everyone can directly communicate. If everyone speaks the same language as a primary language everyone can directly communicate fluently and convey complex idea’s. And by communicating populations that would otherwise remain entirely divided and separate could share perspectives, bond… or at least do so far more efficiently then with different languages.

    Now the loss of languages may not be a good thing for linguistics or anthropology. But for the world itself, the gain is immeasurably greater then the loss when we have as few languages and thus as few divisions as possible.

    In fact ‘preserving identities’ is not a GOOD thing. It’s a very bad thing, it keeps a division between us, it keeps a minority an eternal minority, rather then letting it be absorbed by the majority. No… The more everyone has the same secular identity, the better. They won’t be the ‘other’ then. Multiculturality is a complete and disastrous bust at the roots level. A hobby of foppish rich bourgeousie types. Monocultural secular melting pot style integration is the only way to produce a stable system. Where identity differences are little but charming quirks, but no deep divisions of value and thought. The pitiful corrupt system we have now will completley collapse the moment the oligarchy keeping it in place is deposed or is forced to sacrifice some of it’s idea’s to stay in power. And their rule is already (much deservedly) unstable. Anyone who doesn’t close their eyes can see that.

    Besides, it is also better for people to speak a world language, because if someone only speaks one obscure language well, they have very little access to information. I already notice this with people who only speak my native language well (Dutch). They can look up so much less then people who speak English fluently, and thus they can solve less problems. They can learn less. This is bad.

    Language death as such is fine, perhaps even to be celebrated, and it is odd that Policor types celebrate linguistic revivalism in cases of small minorities, when the sentiment of pride expressed by those groups is one they abhor when dominant groups express it. It shows the madness of an ideology that whilst it might come from a good place ultimate seeks to keep minorities divided from the rest of us. After all, what use is an activist if the cause has already been won? So they make up new causes until they reach ‘christian side hug’ territories of absurdity.

    I say let the small languages simply be weeded out by natural processes. Just record them whilst they still live and embrace the benefits of broader communication and integration that come with their demise.

  9. I don’t have any negative feelings about people who speak minority languages, and I can’t agree with some of the strident views above. But, languages die out for reasons, and they might actually be good reasons.

    We need only look at the many minority languages that Simon has documented that are in endangered status. What is a common thread in many of these accounts? How many times has Simon written something like this? “The language is now spoken only by 200 people who are all elderly, and if their language is not passed on to the next generation it may die out, but younger people are abandoning it for (some more mainstream language nearby)”

    There is a saying, that when people flee bad conditions in their country, it is called “voting with your feet”. Likewise, when the new generation rejects the minority language of their elders, they are “voting with their mouths” so to speak (literally). If young people belonging to the very same culture don’t want the language that “defines” that culture, it’s all over. That is a minority language that has outlived its usefulness. You can’t force people to “save” a language, nor should you need to. Either a language is needed, or it isn’t. If it’s needed, it will stand on its own and you don’t need to save it, and if it’s not needed, you can’t save it.

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