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What Happens When a Language is Silenced?

June 8, 2023


In linguistics, language death becomes official when a language is no longer spoken, even if it is still used for other things. On the other hand, language extinction occurs when a language no longer has living descendants as readers or speakers.

Once no one uses a language at all, it is classified as extinct.

Unfortunately, each extinct language once represented that culture’s unity within and throughout a period of time. Sadly, with the loss of each language, the world loses the evolution of that language’s logic, including its cultural myths and spiritual rituals.

In addition to the loss of expressive dance, poetry, drawing, writing, singing, cooking, and gardening, activities that once provided a snapshot of much deeper human experiences begin to disappear. This includes the culture’s metaphors of Human Creation that gave its people a sense of place within the greater context of their Universe.

A dead language may still be studied...

Linguists and others may use a dead language for centuries through recordings or writings, but it is still dead unless there are fluent speakers. However, any dead language may still have purpose, if others use the language for their own unique reasons. For example, the languages below are dead languages that are not extinct as each is regularly used:

  • Latin – Latin phrases are scattered across many languages and cultures worldwide; and it is used widespread throughout many fields of science and medicine.
  • Sanskrit – As one of the oldest documented Indo-European languages, it is the foundation of ancient languages across the Indian subcontinent and is still used in Hindu rituals, Buddhist hymns and Jain texts.
  • Biblical Hebrew – It is the sole non-extinct Canaanite language; and today it serves as the only successful large-scale example of linguistic revival due to new speakers in the 19th  century.

Although languages like Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit are referred to as dead languages, this use of the term is not common in sociolinguistics. That is because they gradually evolved by continuous transmission from one generation to the next and spread into regional dialects, e.g. Latin lives in modern French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian.

Language Maintenance vs Language Shift

Language shift is the opposite of language maintenance. Continued use of a language in the face of competition or threat from a regionally and socially more powerful language denotes language maintenance. Language shift is the replacement of one language by another as a primary means of communication within a community. A fear of language death occurs whenever a given community is the last in the world that uses the language.

In a research article The Structural Consequences of Language Death, the authors identified four distinct types of language extinction regardless the reason. Gradual death is the slow replacement of one language with another, whereas sudden death occurs when a last monolingual speaker dies. With a bottom-to-top language death, a native tongue isn’t used for conversation but survives for special purposes. Ethnic cleansing often prompts a radical death where a language is lost out of self-defense.

While some speakers can remember their native language after decades of not speaking or hearing it, most begin to lose fluency after only a few years. Speakers of threatened languages also face a form of illocutionary silencing. Some of the illocutionary acts that they would previously have been able to communicate are forever undermined due to language shift. Moreover, the fate of any language can change in a single generation, if it is no longer being learned by children.

Why Languages Are Important

Language is one of the most critical components of human connection. Although species across the animal kingdom have ways of communicating, humans are unique in having mastered cognitive language communication. Through human language people were able to share ideas, thoughts and feelings with others. Language has the power to build societies; but also to tear them down. Language is so central to being human that without it there would be a lifetime of social deprivation and isolation.

Whereas outright genocide is one cause of language extinction, many languages around the world are simply falling out of use due to threat posed by a more popular secondary or replacement language. The history of aggressive attacks of ethnic cleansing that forced a community to give up its language and cultural identity is well documented. When language is lost, culture is refashioned in the new language with different words, sounds and grammar. That’s why we should be equally concerned over each endangered language regardless of the reason for its extinction.

Of the nearly 7,000 languages in the world today, about forty-three percent are considered to be endangered. Plus, with a steady decline since the 1950s in the number of unique languages used throughout the global village, linguists fear many other languages may have a similar fate. Since language has always been a by-product of a changing community, language popularity by secondary speakers may simply be a natural process of language evolution. But it would our loss to loose endangered native languages like Hawaiian or Japanese Ainu.

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An accurate use of languages helps shape relationships for communicating in the global village every day. ProLingo specializes in multilingual localization and event presentations. For optimal results in translating and interpreting your brand messaging, contact our language specialist at 800-287-9755 to discuss your needs for any spoken, written or signed language.

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