Saturday, December 06, 2008

Why Do Languages Die?

Dead or Dying Languages of the World

“How any languages are there in the World?" Well the answer to that question will depend largely on when the question is asked. You see, the number of world languages is a fluid, changing thing. As recently as two years ago, the number of languages in the world was put at 6912, but with dozens of obscure languages falling into obsolescence and disuse almost monthly, now even that figure is in question. More than 517 languages are now on the “endangered” or "dying languages" list. Increasingly, English as a foreign language is extending its influence as a worldwide lingua franca. This, among other reasons, is impacting the survival of regionally or locally-based indigenous tongues around the globe. Hundreds of culturally-rich, ethnic and historically significant languages are dying and not just because of the proliferation of English as a foreign language. But why do languages die?

Why Languages Die

There are a number of reasons for the ultimate disappearance of a language. Briefly then, let’s look at some of them.

No native speakers

As the number of speakers of a language dwindles, the language becomes increasingly endangered to the point of extinction. Grandparents use the language, like Eyak, for example, with their adult children. The adult children, now parents themselves, may use the language little, if at all with their own children, preferring the use of another lingua franca. Finally, the youngest generation abandons the language entirely, never learns it or moves away to seek their fortunes elsewhere, in a location the language is not known or used. With this last generation, the language finally "dies".

No written Form

Numerous languages existed with only a spoken, traditional form, passing down the customs, traditions and elements of the language purely through “Griots”, historians or story-tellers. Harsh climates, lack of durable materials or a distinctive absence of written structure all could contribute to the demise of a traditionally spoken language form. Pictorial forms of a language may exist on non-permanent or semi-permanent media such as animal skins, rock or cave paintings, crudely-formed parchment-like materials or carvings in tree trunks, logs or even as tattoos on human skin.

Absorption by another Lingua Franca

An increasing phenomenon which is causing the disappearance of numerous tongues is the “absorption” of cultures, communicative and data preservation aspects of a “minor” language by a stronger, more widely-spoken and commercially used lingua franca. Nomadic tribes of eastern and central Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the isolated islands and rain forests of the south Pacific tend to “lose” their linguistic heritage through this means. In order for a people or tribe to survive, it becomes increasingly necessary to form trade and other alliances with other, extraneous groups. This requires the adaptation of a common lingua franca for each such tribe. The broader and more widely-used the lingua franca, the more range and options a group, tribe or groups of people have. Often this may take the form of a “pidgin” are mixture of indigenous languages merged into a more broadly communicative form like Melanesian Pidgin.

In part two of this series entitled, “Dying, Dead and Extinct Languages” we’ll continue our glimpse into the demise of some languages and the proliferation of others.

See you then.

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an EFL Teacher Trainer, Intellectual Development Specialist, author and speaker. He has written ESP, foreign language learning, English language teaching texts and hundreds of articles used in more than 135 countries worldwide. Get your FREE, pdf format report on CD or via e-mail, "If You Want to Teach English Abroad, Here’s What You Need to Know" by requesting the title at:


Anonymous said...

I believe that the rights of minority languages need defending.

The promulgation of English as the world's "lingua franca" is unethical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

Unethical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

An interesting video can be seen at
A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

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