Monday, 17 October 2011

The World's Vanishing Languages

Language is the greatest cultural achievement of the human race. A language, any language, is a creation of immense sophistication which has taken millennia to evolve. Nothing else tells us so much about a culture as its language.

There are about 6,500-7,000 distinct languages in the world today. By the end of this century up to half of these may have disappeared. Most of the world’s threatened languages, having no written form, will completely vanish, unrecorded and undocumented. The rate of disappearance is accelerating. At present more than 500 languages are spoken by fewer than 10 people and 1,800 languages are moribund, that is to say, children are no longer speaking them, and a large proportion of them are only spoken regularly by people over sixty. 80 major languages are between them the first language of about 85% of the world’s population. Nearly all the other thousands of languages are spoken by small groups, the large majority of whom are still hunter-gatherers or have retained some connection to the hunter-gatherer culture -  North American Indians, forest tribes in South America and SE Asia, Arctic and sub-Arctic communities, Australian Aborigines, African hunters and herders. New Guinea alone has five times as many languages as the whole of Europe – separate languages, not just different dialects. Most of these groups belong to what is sometimes termed The Fourth World - minority groups within a nation with a different, more dominant culture and language.

It is a misconception that the so-called ‘primitive’ or undeveloped societies have primitive, undeveloped languages.   All research shows these languages to be highly sophisticated instruments of expression, often more complex than our own languages. To give just one example:  whereas English divides the world into singular and plural, Murrinh-Patha, spoken by a small group of Aborigines in  northern Australia, has four categories, single, dual, paucal (for groups of 3-15 people) and plural (for groups of over 15 people).  Since a pronoun is spoken differently according to whether the person is male, female,  a sibling,  married or unmarried, the word ‘you’ in a sentence such as ‘ You are welcome to my home,’ might be said in twenty different ways.

Hunter-gatherer cultures relate to the landscape and to nature much more closely than we do. They see themselves as part of it, not something separate from it, or with the right to have dominion over it.  This, too, is reflected in the language, which makes nature the centre of attention before placing a person in its midst.
The disappearance of a language is a tragedy on many levels. It might happen as a result of the extinction or near extinction of a remote group of people, or through the pressure of a more dominant culture or language, sometimes accompanied by enforced schooling which outlaws the minority language. Being forced off the land and dispersed (e.g. because of commercial mining, logging or clearance for palm-oil plantations), or mass deportation can also contribute to the disintegration of a culture. Whatever the cause, there is human suffering, alienation, loss of identity and mental anguish.

Languages reveal different thought processes and values, different ways of seeing the world, of organising experience, different realities. They provide deep insights into other cultures and open a window into the minds of their speakers. Our global heritage, with its fascinating diversity, is impoverished each time a language dies. The loss of any language is a loss for us all. In 1996 the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was signed by UNESCO, PEN International and several other NGOs. It’s a start, but there is a long way to go and in all too many cases it is too late.

Robin Lloyd-Jones, October 2011

1 comment:


Great to see PEN raising awareness of the importance of indigenous languages, which can be as vulnerable as the environments their speakers inhabit.

To add a further example to Robin's list, in recent years climate scientists have recognised the importance of Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) - which features on UNESCO's list of endangered languages - as its vocabulary enshrines a specialist knowledge of the fragile Arctic ecosystem acquired over many generations.