Language death

Annie Burman

As a child, there was one bedtime story that always left me feeling crushed. It was about a young fisherman, somewhere in the Pacific. He was the last speaker of his language. The linguists weren’t too worried though – he was still young, and they had plenty of time to interview him and record his language. But of course they didn’t – the man fell prey to an occupational hazard. He drowned, and his language disappeared forever.

Looking back at that story, as an adult and a linguist, it still hurts me. I do not know if it ever in fact happened, but neither have I tried to find out. It is far too motivating a tale to have it mingle with reality. Naturally, most scholars are not as laid back as those in the story. There are linguists who travel to the other side of the world, go by boat, car and foot for miles to get to isolated communities speaking endangered languages. The preservation of a language does not only have to do with getting linguistic data. It also serves to protect the customs, myths and beliefs of that community. For most minority communities, their language is closely tied to their culture. Therefore the loss of a language can be catastrophic. The term “language death” is in a sense misleading. Language death does not lead to a dead language. It leads to no language at all. Often when we imagine a language disappearing, we think of harsh governmental policies or outright genocide. Before the Second World War, there were between eleven and thirteen million speakers of Yiddish, a Germanic language spoken in Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. After the war, Yiddish was on the brink of dying out. It is estimated that of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, five million were Yiddish speakers. In the course of just a few years, more than a third of Yiddish speakers had disappeared. Many Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors rejected the language their families had spoken for centuries. It was seen as a language associated too close with pogroms, ghettoes and genocide. Through a combination of the death of a large number of speakers and the rejection of the language from the survivors, Yiddish was about to disappear entirely. The decision not to teach children a language spoken by the parents is a key reason why languages die out; with no new speakers, there is no future for the language. However, within the past few decade, its luck turned. The grandchildren of Yiddish-speakers who had decided not to teach their children Yiddish are now teaching themselves the language, and are speaking it to their own children. People who spoke it as children have started to use it again. In an interview from 2014, conducted partly in Yiddish, the late Leonard Nimoy spoke about going to see a Yiddish-speaking psychiatrist, not for treatment, but simply to chat to someone in Yiddish.


The near-death of Yiddish is not a representative example in many ways. Firstly, Yiddish had a long literary tradition, even encompassing Nobel laureates such as Isaac Bashevis Singer. This gave the language some prestige which helped its survival, unlike for instance Ladino, a Romance language spoken by Sephardic Jews, which has only two pieces of literature, a nineteenth century translation of the Bible, and a version of the Odyssey finished in 2012 by Moshe Ha’elyon, who at the time was 87. With few surviving speakers and no long literary tradition to lean on, Ladino is likely to die with Ha’elyon’s generation. Secondly, the events that brought Yiddish to the brink of extinction are uncommonly sudden and dramatic. This is not to say that other languages have not died out as a result of violence, but most language deaths are far more insidious, however. One telling example can be found in antiquity. In his book Languages in Danger (2002), Andrew Dalby estimates that before the Roman Empire stared expanding, there were sixty languages spoken around the Mediterranean. By 500 CE, only ten of them survived. So what happened to the other fifty – Oscan, Etruscan, Lusitanian, Gaulish, Dacian, Punic and many others?

Rome was not a peaceful empire, and it did not shrink from conquering by violence. Many died, and much land was settled by Latin-speakers. However, Rome had little interest in forcing cultural uniformity onto its new subjects. There is little to indicate that there were Roman language policies targeting other languages. The closest there is is the fact that Roman citizens had to write their wills in Latin; some survive on papyrus in Egypt, written in Latin but for the signature, which is in Greek. (Greek was widely used in the Eastern parts of the Empire, including Egypt, even for official business. It is among the ten languages that survived, eventually evolving into Modern Greek.) But just because there is no official pressure to change your language did not mean that no pressure existed. Often it appears to have been an issue of what John E. Joseph of Edinburgh University has called the “getting-on mojo”. For instance, a speaker of Oscan (a sister language of Latin, spoken in southern Italy) may find it becomes impossible to conduct trade, go into politics, join the army, participate in major cults or bring a legal case if they do not speak Latin. Oscan monolinguals slowly become more marginalised, not because of some official policy but because they do not speak the language to access trade, politics, religion and culture. Therefore, our Oscan speaker starts learning Latin. Their children grow up bilingual. For some, Oscan may be important. For others, it becomes a symbol for being held back – Oscan no longer has that “getting-on mojo”. They stop using it, and do not speak it to their children. Ultimately, the language disappears and dies.


The domination of Latin killed off five out of six languages around the Mediterranean. Many worry that the same is happening now with English, a language with unprecedented cultural spread. This is not due, as some think, to the spread of Hollywood films or British telly. It too goes back to empire and colonisation, but on a much larger scale than Rome. Some worried voices have come out of France, where English loans are now banned from official texts, or Sweden, where some have worried that Swedish is being quashed by English influence. However, French and Swedish are unlikely to die because of English. The languages which are threatened are far smaller, found in areas colonised by English-speakers, and typically spoken by ethnic minorities. Although steps are being taken to save it, Hawaiian has long been considered endangered. Many Australian Aboriginal languages are teetering on the brink of extinction. On a list of languages indigenous to the Americas, depressingly many are marked as extinct, and many are critically endangered.


The reasons behind language death go far beyond linguistics. Colonialist geopolitics, cultural imperialism and racism are all part of it. There are many ways to try to hold back language death, from community engagement to policy changes. However, we must ask ourselves: for whom are we saving the language? The answer should be “for the speakers”. It is after all their culture that will be lost if there is no way to access it. Some do not agree with this response, but see the mere existence of these language as the most important thing. I believe that the more languages we can save, the better, but linguistic diversity for its own sake reduces the speakers of minority languages to quaint curiosities. Ultimately, the question is: if someone does not want to pass their language on to their children because they are afraid it will impact them negatively, are we in any position to stop them, and can we blame them for that decision?

List of endangered/extinct languages: