By definition, endangered languages are those that are facing extinction in the future. Several languages are not being used and are replaced by languages that are widely spoken in various countries and regions. If the trends are not reversed, the next century will see a few more of them becoming extinct.
Many older languages only have very few speakers since they are no longer taught or learned by younger people. When the last speakers of endangered languages die, the languages die with them, unless there are efforts to revive the language.
What about Ancient Latin and Ancient Greek?
The two are dead languages and that is because they are not spoken in their former forms. What happened with these two languages was evolution instead of replacement. Middle English gave rise to Modern English while Ancient Latin evolved slowly into modern French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and other Romance languages. Modern Greek evolved from Ancient Greek.
Extinction of languages
From a state of endangerment, many languages become extinct. When the speakers of a language are exterminated as what happened to Tasmanians in the 19th century, several languages suddenly died. Another reason for the extinction is the pressure exerted on a community to incorporate with a more powerful or larger group. In some areas, the people had to learn the foreign language but retained their primary language, such as what occurred in Greenland, where the people had to learn Danish and Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic), which is spoken by the Greenlandic Inuit in Denmark.
This is not often the case in many other communities around the world. Often, the communities are forced to abandon their language and their cultural and ethnic identity in favor of the invaders’ language. The law forbids Turkey’s ethnic Kurds to formally teach or even print their own language. In the United States, Native American language speakers were forbidden or even punished if they spoke their mother tongues if they go to boarding schools.
Process of extinction
The process of extinction of a language could be fast or gradual. In one generation, the fate of a language could be determined, particularly if the younger children are not learning the language. In the Alaskan communities of Yupik Eskimos, children still spoke Yupik about 20 years ago. Today, the youngest Yupik speakers are in their 20s while English is the only language the children speak.
Up until the 1940s, people in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island spoke Scots Gaelic. Around the 1970s, children are no longer learning the language.
In other areas, the decline of many languages was more gradual. The use of Mohawk and Onondaga, which are Iroquoian languages slowly declined. These Native American languages were used in upstate New York and in some parts of Canada. Although the number of speakers is declining, older adults in these regions are still speaking the language. Mohawk for example is still used by younger generations.
What causes languages to be endangered?
The 21st edition of Ethnologue says that there are still 7,097 languages spoken around the world, although only a few are dominant. Based on the data from Ethnologue, Africa speaks 2,143 languages. The Americas still speak 1,060 languages while Asia still speaks 2,300 languages. The Pacific Islands (including Australia and New Zealand) have 1,306 languages while Europe only speaks 288.
Some of these endangered languages are predicted to become extinct by the next century, as their numbers would be lower. However, linguists could not agree on how many would be gone. It is definite that many minority languages would slowly disappear. More dominant languages, such as English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Indonesian, Russian, Hindi and Swahili, which still have millions of speakers get widespread use due to immigration.
Several factors cause the languages to be endangered. One is the diminishing number of native speakers. Age, use of the language by children, presence of other languages, attitude towards the language and their users’ sense of ethnic identity, government policies, job opportunities and urban drift are additional factors that affect the survival and preservation of a language.
An endangered language is considered as such due to the lack of vital factors that could help it to survive. It could be the lack of alphabet as many of the older languages are oral languages. It could be because it does not have literary works or there’s a lack of people who can write and read the language.
Migration is another factor. If the native speakers move into another location where the government promotes the use of a particular language, the mother tongue will be abandoned. In some cases, the parents believe that more opportunities would be available to their children if they become fluent in the adopted language. Some parents stop using their native language for this particular reason.
Which areas have more endangered languages?
Many of the endangered languages around the world are spoken within small communities, where many of the world’s languages could be found. Many are ethnic languages that are spoken by tribes and marginalized communities, such as those found in Papua New Guinea, which has the most number of living languages in the world. Include here the languages of the Native Americans, the Aborigines of Australia and the tribal and national languages of Africa, Oceania and Asia. Add to this list the languages spoken by smaller communities such as the Basques, Provençal, Frisians and the Irish.
In North America, the rate of decline in the number of languages spoken is significant. Many of the languages are currently spoken by adults ages 50 and over. Very few children speak their parents’ mother tongue, as the older generations failed to transmit their languages to their children, leading to many languages becoming endangered.
Other languages are threatened because the speakers reside in communities where the main language spoken is English, a language that their children adopt. Pressure from the community, media, videos and films entice the younger generations to join a commercialized and glamorous environment that does not have any clear connection with the native community they live in, their traditions and their elders.
Still, the phenomenon is not general. There are also several Native American languages whose communities are stronger and more resilient. They manage to maintain their languages and impart to the younger generations the value of their own mother tongues in their lives.
Listen to snippets of endangered languages here.
Impact of the decline or loss of a language
A major part of the cultural identity of a community is lost when it loses a language. Although the loss of a language in inevitable, some kind of pressure is often involved in the process. The loss then becomes a sign of defeat. Social identity could also be lost, although this is not always the case. When the Manx language and the Chumash language in the Isle of Man and California, respectively were lost, the identity of the people as Manx or Chumash did not disappear.
However, it is a fact that language is a strong symbol of a community’s identity. Language allows the members of the community to experience their intellectual, spiritual and cultural life. Language embodies their terms to express their emotions, behaviors and habits, their way of speaking, their humor, style of conversation, their common greetings, their vocabulary, traditions, myths and literature. When a language becomes endangered, these things slowly diminish, eventually being lost and forgotten when the language dies. The community and their activities would have to be refashioned using a new language.
Point of view of the scientific community
The scientific community sees the loss of a language as the loss of the history of the people. It’s because language is the means of passing down the group’s history. When a language is lost, the vital information about the community’s early history disappears as well. The study of human cognition is hampered when a language is lost.
The commonality among human languages around the world allows linguists to know more about the functions and processes of the human mind. It helps linguists understand how such a complex system as a language could be easily learned by children.
Translation is a service that is very vital to world communication. It bridges the language gap. The availability of native-speaking translators around the world helps keep languages alive. While it is difficult to stem the endangerment and disappearance of languages, you can still enjoy the written word in various languages through professional translation.
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