Languages in danger

The last post mentioned that the Arawak/Lokono language is in danger of disappearing. Around the world there are thousands of languages like Lokono with very few speakers left. It is very likely that many of these languages will be gone forever within the next few years.  UNESCO’s website refers to one study which estimates that

if nothing is done, half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.

It’s hard to be certain about the exact numbers, but there’s no doubt that languages are disappearing at a dramatic and unprecedented rate. Many have already gone over the last few decades, and many more will be gone within our lifetimes. In the Caribbean many of the Amerindian languages that were once spoken across the region have already ceased to exist. Some, like Lokono, remain in small and shrinking pockets on the mainland of South America. Many other heritage languages are also threatened, like Patois in Trinidad, not long ago spoken as a lingua franca across all social, ethnic, geographical and linguistic boundaries, or Kromanti in Jamaica, closely related to the Akan languages of West Africa, or the unique sign language of Providence Island.

You would expect linguists to be concerned about the rapid disappearance of languages, just as you would expect zoologists to be concerned about the loss of biological diversity. Unlike dodos, however, languages leave no fossils.

Photo: Heinz-Josef Lücking
Photo: Heinz-Josef Lücking

Most languages have no written tradition, and when an oral language ceases to spoken, it can be lost forever. The Beothuk language of Newfoundland, for example, will remain a mystery: only a few word lists remain since the last speaker, Shanawadithit, died in 1829. It may soon be possible to resurrect the wooly mammoth and perhaps the dodo, using traces of DNA, but Beothuk existed in the minds of the people who spoke it, and was gone forever when they died. In many other cases, not even the name of the last speaker remains.

There are many good reasons why linguists care about the loss of linguistic diversity, and rather than trying to rehash some of the arguments here, I’d recommend interested readers look at some of the great online resources, including the Caribbean Indigenous and Endangered Languages website and the Living Tongues Institute. I would just add that there is so much that we still have to learn about human language, and endangered languages often challenge even our most basic notions of what languages can be like. Languages are still usually thought of as existing either in speech or writing, but the astonishing diversity that exists around the world forces us to rethink: there are languages which can be whistled, there are tactile sign languages used by DeafBlind people, there are villages with their own unique sign languages used by deaf and hearing people alike. Much of this diversity has only just begun to be researched, and there is a vast unexplored (yet rapidly shrinking) terrain. For instance, we don’t even know how many sign languages there are in the world: we know of at least 200, and we know that we haven’t even begun looking in many areas of the world; we also know that many are in danger of disappearing.

Here in the Caribbean, there are linguistic mysteries all around us. In the 1970’s, Ian Robertson ‘discovered’ a language in Guyana, Berbice Dutch, which not only was unknown to linguists at the time, but which some linguists had predicted did not exist. One of the last speakers of Berbice Dutch, Albertha Bell, was 103 years old when Ian spoke to her in March 2004. She died the following year.

Among non-linguists, reactions to the loss of linguistic diversity vary considerably. Some people argue that languages die because they’re of no use any more; that people switch to languages like English, because they are better suited to the modern world. It’s true that economic pressures do play a role in language death. It’s also true that talking about computer engineering might be more difficult in Lokono than in English, but this is not the result of some design fault in Lokono: Middle English speakers would have faced similar problems. If Lokono speakers found that they wanted to use their language to talk about computer engineering, they would find ways of doing so. New vocabularies are created in languages all the time to allow people to talk about new areas of interest. All languages are capable of creating new words, or simply stealing them from other languages, as a quick look at English will tell you. Want to tweet in Maori or GarifunaYou’re not alone.* You think it would be a problem translating Rihanna into the Inuit language Inuktitut?

In any case, to think that the reason that the Amerindian languages once spoken in Trinidad have (nearly) disappeared is that the speakers decided not to bother using them when they heard how much better European languages sounded would be an outrageous misreading of history. Many languages are on the brink of disappearing because the groups of people who spoke them have been decimated, usually through what might euphemistically be called “contact” with outsiders.

Even when such contact is not genocidal, powerful groups have often intervened with deliberate policies aimed at disrupting language transmission in linguistic minority communities. In residential schools in Canada, First Nations children were punished if they used their home languages. In Australia,  ‘Stolen Generations’ of Aboringinal children were taken from their families and prevented from learning their ancestral languages and cultures. In Trinidad, deaf children were forced to hold their hands behind their backs in classes and try to speak.

Such policies had a purpose. A language can be a source of great power, pride and independence, and that power may be seen as a threat. Like John Bennett, many people around the world are refusing to discard their languages lightly, working to preserve and revitalize them, aware that languages which were called worthless are in fact unspeakably precious.

*It’s even been suggested recently that Latin is better suited to the demands of Twitter’s 140 character limit than English.

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