Why do languages die?


Natural cycle vs. unprecedented crisis

In the same manner that plant and animal species have appeared and disappeared over millions of years, languages have evolved, grown, dispersed and eventually dwindled and died. However, during the last 100 yeas the rate of disappearance has increased dramatically.

A variety of factors and situations, very often combined, culminate in the death of a language.

A language will perish if all who speak it are dead. Thus, anything or anyone that directly threatens the physical safety of a community threatens the survival of the language they speak. Catastrophic natural disasters can decimate or wipe out small communities in isolated areas, leading to a sudden and irreversible extinction of their language.

In other cases, unfavorable climatic conditions can result not only in widespread death, but in changing demographic patterns which in turn impact the status of indigenous languages.

The most predominant threat to the physical safety of populations in modern times has been imported disease. Since the Age of Exploration, foreign diseases have annihilated entire indigenous communities. By the time of exploration, diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox had been common in Europe for centuries, meaning that individuals had built antibodies and immunity. When they travelled to foreign lands, they took the diseases with them, infecting indigenous peoples. The inhabitants of the New World had never been exposed to such diseases, and as a consequence, millions died in short periods of time. It is estimated that since the arrival of the first European explorers on the American continent, more than 90% of the indigenous population has died out as a result of introduced diseases. Currently, AIDS is likely to have the greatest impact on the extinction of both communities and languages.

Political, Social and Economic Threats

Human induced environmental degradation, particularly desertification and deforestation, as well as economic exploitation for resources has forced unplanned and unpredictable migration to take place. In new, often suburban settings, communities struggle to maintain their cultural and linguistic traditions. This trend is predicted to increase as a result of the impacts of climate change.

Civil strife, conflicts at an international scale and long-term ethnic or religious enmities also have an effect on the status of languages. For example, several Pacific island languages became endangered in the years following the invasions and battles fought on them by the great Powers during the Second World War.

Repressive and hegemonic language policies are common in many parts of the world. The domestic policies of a large number of East African countries actively promote the abandonment of tribal languages in favor of Swahili or some other "unifying" common language as a way of promoting loyalty to new governments. Often, minority languages are repressed as a first step towards repressing the actual minority. An example of this is the “Russification” agenda of the Soviet Union government during the 1950’s. During this period, children from minority populations were forced to attend Russian-only boarding schools for roughly ten months of the year, which resulted in a loss of fluency and identification with their native language. As this evidences, many people have an invested political or economic interest in eradicating a minority’s language and homogenizing the languages spoken and used in a particular place. If the majority of a nation’s armed forces speak the same language, then they are more likely to feel confident fighting alongside one another; for one, they will be able to communicate, and for another, despite differences in social class, ethnicity or age, they will have one thing in common.

Population pressures, globalization and the spread of industrialization are the most accredited culprits of “language murder”. Global economic patterns often force small, unindustrialized communities to assimilate to a different culture. This may occur when individuals physically move to another geographic location where their culture is no longer the prevalent one, or when they allow or encourage a different cultural conduct to prevail in the place of theirs. This phenomenon, know as cultural assimilation, consists of several stages. During the first, the speakers of the vulnerable language face immense pressure to speak in the dominant language. This pressure comes in an array of  forms, from peer pressure to government laws. The second stage is characterized by a developing bilingualism - people begin to gain proficiency in the new language, but continue to speak in their native tongue. During the last stage, younger generations find themselves being more familiar with the dominant language, and less connected to their mother tongue. The most concerning aspect of the final stage are the increasing feelings, particularly amongst children, of shame and inferiority about the native language of their parents and grandparents.

Factors which compromise the physical safely of populations