Translation Musings: Disappearing languages

Jul 21, 2015 | Language, Miscellaneous, Musings may sound surprising but linguists don’t know the exact number of languages that are spoken in the world. According to some estimates, there are about 6500-7000 different languages. However, it’s difficult to know for sure for various reasons…… and that could be worth their own article (maybe next time!). 

What is certain, though, is that every year there are fewer and fewer languages. The possible causes for this are quite varied, including natural disasters, wars or diseases. One very common scenario is when a minority community becomes bilingual and then shifts to the majority language. This shift may be voluntary in the hope of better recognition or could be forced by government policies. Either way, due to these causes, once a language starts losing its native speakers, first it gains “endangered” status and then, when the very last speaker passes away, it is pronounced “dead”.

Some recently disappeared languages are Klallam (was spoken in the USA), Dhungaloo (Australia), Pazeh (Taiwan) and the Cromarty dialect of Scots (UK). As you can see from these examples, this phenomenon is global, not restricted to any geographical area or country.

In the opinion of our General Manager, Agnès, in a way, language death could be a natural part of life. Of course, if a minority language dies out because its speakers are forced by the majority group to abandon it, it’s not good. On the other hand, if one language is promoted in multilingual environments to aid communication, it might not necessarily be a bad thing. According to Ana, our Commercial Translations Manager, you can’t stop the flow of history and change is natural. On the other hand, if we have the knowledge that it is happening and a language is about to go extinct, why not try to do something? Last but not least, Isabelle, our Editorial Project Coordinator says that it is a “massive shame” to lose languages, especially in this day and age when we can preserve them in writing and in voice recordings. As she explained, it is our duty to make sure that these languages survive at least as a testimony.

What do you think? Is language death an ordinary occurrence and a part of the “linguistic” evolution or should we do something to stop languages from dying?

source of image: Wikimedia Commons