It’s not just species that are going extinct

October 12, 2010 • 5:21 am

Today’s New York Times reports the discovery of a previously unknown language, Koro, in northeastern India.  But the new language is offset by extinction: according to the article, every two weeks one of the world’s 7000 languages becomes extinct.  National Geographic has put up a short film about the search for new tongues; it shows Koro being spoken.

In “The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages,” published last month by National Geographic Books, Dr. Harrison noted that Koro speakers “are thoroughly mixed in with other local peoples and number perhaps no more than 800.”

Moreover, linguists are not sure how Koro has survived this long as a viable language. Dr. Harrison wrote: “The Koro do not dominate a single village or even an extended family. This leads to curious speech patterns not commonly found in a stable state elsewhere.”

39 thoughts on “It’s not just species that are going extinct

  1. Very depressing, & most of these languages have very few speakers (in the hundreds).

    Equally as depressing is the automatically generated ‘related post’ link, ‘Why 7,000 languages’. Don’t click on it if you have an ulcer – that nutter thinks evolution is a lie because there are 7,000 languages. He has obviously never heard of language change. Sigh…

    1. Language diversity as an argument against evolution? That’s a new one to me (I guess I haven’t been around here long enough).

      Has anyone ever pointed out to the nutter that the reconstructive work of the original Indo-Europeanists was an inspiration to Darwin?

      And it’s fairly easy to see language change in progress.

  2. It is sad because each language also has a culture and history. Unfortunately such extinction seems inevitable.

    It’s a bit like how invasive species tend to displace indigenous ones.

  3. I fail to see the sadness.

    An essentialist and conservationist view of culture leads far to often to people living in squalour. Bereft of benefits modern knowledge (and as a part of this: Modern healthcare) can give.

    This is not to say we should not give people the freedom to retain the parts of their own culture they might choose, but an active culture conservatism is at least as bad as an active assimilation policy.

    Unless he’s died: Somwhere in the amazon jungle there’s a very confused and scared guy running around alone. His entire tribe has been killed by poachers and illegal loggers. The authorites know of him, and could do the decent thing (ie – transport him to somewhere else where he could meet new people etc), but because of demands to “preserve cultures” he’s running around alone and scared.

  4. I realize it was not your point, but I do get bugged by the ‘prevent language extinction’ talk that seems to mirror species preservation in many peoples’ minds.

    Trying to keep a dead language alive (as opposed to simply documenting it as much as practical) essentially means trying to keep people embedded in an obsolete environment, like museum exhibits. Language, like culture, is a product of time and circumstance. When those circumstances change, language either changes or dies. Let’s not get overly sentimental about it.

    By all means record it, study it. But don’t cry over it.

    1. Oh well, I for one am immeasurably saddened by the extinction of Old English and Middle English (the glorious language of Chaucer). Not to mention Old Norse.

      I think all those extinct languages should be revived forthwith.

      1. The wyndow she undoth, and that in haste.
        Have do, quod she, com of, and speed the faste,
        Lest that oure neighebores thee espie.
        This absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie.
        Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,
        And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,
        And absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,
        But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
        Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
        Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys,
        For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd.
        He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,
        And seyde, fy! allas! what have I do?
        Tehee! quod she, and clapte the wyndow to,

        1. in modern English (from “The Miller’s Tale”):

          The window she unbarred, and that in haste.
          “Have done,” said she, “come on, and do it fast,
          Before we’re seen by any neighbour’s eye.”
          This Absalom did wipe his mouth all dry;
          Dark was the night as pitch, aye dark as coal,
          And through the window she put out her hole.
          And Absalom no better felt nor worse,
          But with his mouth he kissed her naked arse
          Right greedily, before he knew of this.
          Aback he leapt- it seemed somehow amiss,
          For well he knew a woman has no beard;
          He’d felt a thing all rough and longish haired,
          And said, “Oh fie, alas! What did I do?”
          “Teehee!” she laughed, and clapped the window to [shut];

      2. Þverra nú, Þeirs Þverrđu,
        Þingbirtingar Ingva,
        Hvar skalk manna mildra…

        Yes, I studied Old Norse once!

        I disagree with Jay & The Bear – to me the loss of these languages is like toe loss of the variegated patchwork of shops & businesses that are increasingly making high streets across the world resemble each other more & more in their blandness & sameness. To speak a minority language does not have to mean poverty & ill health – it is the dominant culture & language that often imposes that.

    2. I’m not arguing that people who learn major international languages like English aren’t gaining a lot, perhaps a lot more than they (or usually, their kids) lose with the dying out of their native language. But it’s still a loss.

      Different languages allow different ways of thinking about things. Yes, it’s hard to learn more than one language, but that’s no reason to avoid the attempt.

      Yes, I would agree it would good if everyone spoke a common language (I vote for English!) to some extent, but can you imagine the impoverishment if absolutely everything had to be written in 3rd-grade English?

      1. The problem is that it’d probably be impossible for “everyone” to speak the “same” language. Language changes, constantly, and a unified global language could probably never take hold, even in our age of global media saturation. It would very quickly fragmentize into a million dialects.

        I can envision an artificially standardized lingua franca… but those don’t seem to catch on.

    3. I’d assume the main goal of the linguists who run around “saving” languages is to simply study and describe them. I’m sure they know it’s impossible to reverse the cultural change that led to the language’s fading out.

      Still, it’s a pity. We don’t really understand how language works, and losing a living language means losing a big chunk of data. Yes, we can record the lexicon, and determine the phonological system, and try to describe the syntax… but once the last native speaker is dead, we’re really just dissecting a corpse.

  5. Right, throwing my hand up here in complete ignorance.
    Why exactly are dying languages worth preserving? Surely one less language is one less communication barrier between us?

    1. Well, one reason is that people with different languages have different and interesting ways of looking at the world. If you only speak English, you can’t speak about a person without knowing their gender. In many languages you can. (Douglas Hoffstedter has a sadly hilarious essay in which race and gender trade places – – it’s thought-provoking.) English specifies the time dimension to verbs in a way that other languages do not. English embeds the subject-object distinction so strongly that we may give it more importance than it warrants. And since I’m not fluent many other languages, there may (must) be other ways that English hobbles my thinking. In NZ Maori, one can ask a question about the animals going into the Ark, to which the answer must be “Two by two”. (Takihia nga kararehe i neke ake ki roto i te waka a Noa? Takirua.) What is that question in English?

      1. I’m not saying there is zero merit to studying the way other cultures speak and interpret the world. I am asking if it it moral to actively preserve languages when the reason they are dying out is because no one wants to speak them.

    2. During a brief visit to Germany and Holland, it struck me that German, Dutch and Englsh are three very similar languages on a continuum. Why have three when one would do? We should all just speak Dutch.

      1. The only problem would be the short term inconvenience of learning a new language. However the long term benefits of everyone speaking the same language would easily outweigh this. I would not be against learning Dutch if that’s the way we were to go, I have no loyalty to the English language just because it happens to be the one I was brought up in.

      1. Oh I’m not saying they shouldn’t be studied, recorded, analysed and assessed. Absolutely we should keep records of these things, just as we keep records of historical events. But just like ancient traditions and laws I don’t think we should actively preserve for the mere sake of preserving them. Besides how are you going to preserve a language that no one wants to speak? Force them?

        1. Languages become endangered for numerous and complex reasons. It’s quite rare when languages die because “no one wants to speak” them. (In fact, I am aware of no such documented cases.) I think one would be hard-pressed to find a linguist who’d suggest we should “force” people to continue speaking any given language given the strong bent towards “description” rather than “prescription.” In fact, many linguists work with groups to encourage and promote language preservation.

          Living languages should be preserved, insofar as possible, because they are a window into ourselves. They tell us about the language system within us, can help in decoding lost languages, often play a role in one’s identity, help us understand how languages evolve, and so on.

          1. When I say “don’t want to speak them” I’m meaning it to encompass all of the situations which give rise to languages dying naturally.
            e.g. villages emptying or dying, children moving out to the cities and needing to speak their language, etc.

            These are all natural occurrences and I’m not sure how you can actively preserve the language is this situation without some force against the pressures above.

            You have said we should preserve living languages but you have not said how.

            1. I would suggest your “don’t want to speak them” is actually a misnomer. I believe you should rephrase the statement. Even as such, the idea does not establish such situations as “natural.” There are many pressures controlled by people via policies or social expectations which result in different patterns of language use (e.g., language policies, education policies, immigration policies, social pressures/the English-only movement, etc.). If you’d like a taste of these issues, look into some of the debates about bilingual education in California, the debates about providing government services in languages other than English in cities around the United States, or the debates about Flemish and French in Belgium. A good primer on such issues can be found in the “An Introduction to Language Planning: Theory and Method” edited by Thomas Ricento.

              As for the “how” of language preservation, there are many programs currently being pursued by the different Native American tribes. You can watch a brief video of one program in particular called “Dakota Life.” It provides many ideas (e.g., materials, community outreach, educational programs, etc.) as to how languages can be preserved and revitalized. A paper which I wrote in school even suggested using social networks to encourage and motivate teenagers and young adults to continue using the language when they move beyond their home communities. More suggestions are provided in “At War with Diversity: US Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety” by James Crawford.

  6. Its interesting that of the 6 or 7 thousand languages, almost 1200 of them are in New Guinea, because of the extended isolation of the many small communities in its highlands. Certainly, while I believe it is worth preserving these languages for future study, I can’t imagine these hundreds of small tribes are really better off for having a huge barrier between them and their neighbors as a different language.

    Language is one of the big dividers in the world… just look at how easy it is to go between the US, Canada, the UK and Australia with English, or through Central and South America with Spanish. Those countries may squabble, but they have closer relationships because of the easy of travel and trade. I think languages are going to go extinct as much for economic reasons as for imperialism. Speaking a remote Bantu language is just not the money maker that it once was.

  7. At one time, the whole civilized world spoke one language — Latin.

    Now, not so much.

    So, the plasticity of language is fairly self-evident. Heck, I can’t understand a wide range of English dialects, nor can they understand my American. In Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and many other places (including some of the backwoods areas of my own state), I would be hard-pressed to order breakfast without pointing at the menu.

    So, I think it’s interesting that so many languages evolved, but I’m not going to get exercised over the death of one or more of them. Despite the implications regarding loss of local culture. Are we to insist that all Italians go back to Latin and wear togas? After all, when the language was lost, the culture followed.

    Biodiversity, yes. Cultural diversity, sure — as long as it’s not based on woo and inequality (ie, Sharia law). Lingual-diversity, not so much.

    1. The whole civilized world? You realize that’s a remarkably provincial claim, not rooted the least bit in historical reality?

      For example, I’m pretty sure the Chinese never spoke Latin.

      1. You’d be mistaken; many Chinese did indeed speak Latin (and some probably still do). However, “the civilized world” is misleading. At some point all people (mostly men) in various parts of Europe who had a university education learned Latin, but the poor peons never learned a word – it is a fairly recent phenomenon that the peons are even taught how to read and write the language they speak. When I was young the illiteracy rate even in the USA was very high. Hans Christian Andersen’s autobiography has a section which shows the utility of learning Latin in his era – he spoke Danish and he was in Germany and decided to visit the brothers Grimm. Andersen spoke no German and the Grimms spoke no Danish, and yet Andersen had a good conversation with Jacob Grimm (or was it his brother Wilhelm).

  8. I’m reminded of the story of the Mati Ke language of northern Australia. The last two speakers lived reasonably close to one another, yet never spoke. Why not? Because they were brother and sister, and in the Mati Ke culture brothers and sisters were strictly forbidden from speaking to each other after the age of puberty.

    Some things are just not worth preserving.

    It feels very misleading to use the term extinction both for species and for languages. When a language goes “extinct” it just means that the people concerned are using another language, and in most cases one that is more useful.

    Excluding cases when deliberate action (by government or whatever) is driving a language extinct, it doesn’t seem a great cause for concern.

  9. It’s interesting but it is an inevitable phenomenon and I am one of those people who really don’t care for the loss of languages. Who mourns Latin or ancient Greek? Neither the modern Romans nor the Greeks do. Languages change with time and with contact with other groups some languages are lost for purely practical purposes. The world is such a large place that I don’t believe we can have a single language; even if we all chose a language like English it would surely be mutated almost beyond recognition in places.

    What would be sad would be a loss of knowledge rather than a mere loss of language. Did that language have a written expression and did any writings have anything valuable to teach us? If not, then there is nothing more than a sentimental loss. I only object to the loss of a language if the loss is via coercion rather than a natural adoption of another language.

    1. Well, read how Welsh-speakers and Gaelic-speakers were treated, and ask whether that did not involve coercion. One of the two greatest poets of the mediaeval British Isles, along with Chaucer (who is nicely quoted above), and one of the greatest poets of mediaeval Europe, was the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, who wrote wonderfully comic and energetic verse. Most English people, and most English people with some sort of literary education have never heard of him, and they are not usually interested in lessening their ignorance, any more than they are interested in acquainting themselves with literature written in Gaelic (whether Scottish or Irish); often they simply reject it out of what amounts to chauvinistic blindness – Philip Larkin was sniffy about Hugh MacDiarmid for pitifully poor reasons, and was certainly not interested in acquainting himself with the work of one of the greatest Scottish poets of the last century, Somhairle MacGill-eain, who wrote in Gaelic. There is, incidentally, such a thing as oral literature, and that of course disappears with a language.
      And unfortunately it has mostly been the case that languages have died out because of coercion, and that the loss of a language has involved the loss of a culture and often the destruction of a tribe. Nowadays, you don’t get nice old missionaries writing sorrowfully about the sad plight of the South African San people while simultaneously justifying the genocide because the San stood in the way of progress, as you did in the late nineteenth century, but quite often so-called civilised people nowadays are willing to countenance much the same sort of thing for much the same sort of reasons.

      1. I think Steve Martin said it best, all those years ago:

        “You never appreciate your language until you go to a foreign country that doesn’t have the COURTESY to speak English.”

        1. Yes, thank you, Steve. And I should like to add – without in any way being critical or condescending, I hope! – that it is oddly difficult for people from a dominant culture who have never genuinely experienced a radically different culture to understand what is involved in the loss of a language and a way of life. It is not being sentimental to point out that such losses involve real pain and real suffering.

          1. I’ve spent many years in places where I was the odd one out as an English speaker, trying to get by in some other language. Basically one is a bit slow and stupid compared to everyone else who can speak properly. (Of course, it was my choice to be there, unlike an actual refugee.)

            I’ve also worked a bit with war and economic refugees who were struggling to make do with a very limited grasp of the language they now had to use.

            None of this is quite like having one’s native language die out in one’s homeland, but I have some sympathy for how it might feel.

  10. Sometimes languages have been suppressed by force as a political tool. This in no way, however, justifies the artificial preservation of languages. Coercive behavior is a separate problem.

    People DO choose to not preserve their language because they realize that language is a TOOL, and adopting the dominant language has significant benefits. That may smack of chauvinism to some, but it’s a sort of social spin glass, once enough people adopt that choice, it solidifies and becomes more and more useful as more people adopt.

    1. Language is more than a tool. It is part of the culture. It is part of one’s identity. (Whether one chooses to accept that or not is a different matter.) Thus, I would suggest rephrasing your statement as, “(Some) People do choose to not preserve their language because they view language as a tool.”

      1. People who actually viewed their language as part of their identity would continue to use it. Those that choose not to bother really do not need to be guilted into some process to make outsiders feel better.

        It’s just identity politics from outsiders, when they try to engineer ‘perservation’ of languages. They are endeavoring to use these people as a kind of linguistic petri dish so that they (the outsiders, usually) can feel good that the language (or culture, which in reality is just another tool) hasn’t died.

        1. I meant to that one’s ability to speak a given language is a matter of fact. The person may or may not choose to value (i.e., self-identify or place importance on) that aspect of who they are.

          Also, I find your attack on “outsiders” rather interesting. Do you mind pointing me to any of these “outsiders” (i.e., linguists who are involved in the field of language planning, under which language preservation happens to fall, but are not speakers of the language communities within which they’re working) who are engaging in identity politics? I would be really curious to read some of their work as I’m not familiar with anyone in the field attempting to manipulate or force language communities to preserve their languages.

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