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File:Wohngebiet-Micmac png - Wikimedia Commons

File:Wohngebiet-Micmac png - Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this week, a woman in Latvia by the name of Grizelda Kristina died. Doubtless almost all of you reading this have never heard of her – I hadn’t heard of her myself before her death on the 2nd made news. It made news because with the death of Grizelda Kristina, an entire culture died with her. She was the last native speaker of the Livonian language, a medieval language from what is now Latvia, and though there are a hundred or so partial speakers left, the death of the languages last partial speaker has all but assured Livonian’s days as a spoken language are over. Of course, Livonian is far from the only language that may come to share this fate. In this day and age, as the world grows ever more interconnected via trade, communication and culture, one of globalization’s unspoken casualties has been language diversity. Current estimates place the number of currently spoken languages at between 6,000 and 7,000, and of those thousands, over 95% of the planet speaks one of just four hundred of them – many of the remaining 6,000 or so will likely be extinct within a century. The most generous estimates say that percentage of languages to go extinct will be around 50%, while grimmer estimates place that number at nearly 90%. Regardless of the numbers, it is all but a statistical certainty that within just two or three generations, thousands of languages, some of which have been spoken for centuries, will have gone silent forever.This is nothing new – languages have been waxing and waning with every successive human culture, changing as often as the civilizations and peoples surrounding them. Languages spoken by a handful of tribes may be wiped out with their speakers in situations ranging from war to famine to disease, some even before an outsider has even heard them spoken. Languages spoken by entire civilizations aren’t any safer – Egyptian is as dead as the pharaohs, Latin conquered Gaulish as easily as Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, and Akkadian and Phoenician are as dead as Nineveh and Tyre. Sometimes time itself does this – Old, Middle and Modern English are as different from each other as Modern English would be from German, and the Romance languages as foreign to a Roman as Parthian would have been in his day and age.While nothing new, the scale and pace of language death on a global scale has grown leaps and bounds in the Modern era. Colonialism struck the first blows, as countless tribal tongues, if not the tribes themselves, saw themselves replaced by the tongues of far away peoples. While the colonial era may have come and gone, the global trade network it created stayed and expanded – the combination of British imperialism and American culture and consumerism alone has all but seen English become the de facto international language, spoken in every nation of the world, often as a second language, and increasingly as a first language. If trade and culture started it, communications, specifically the Internet, has finished the job – with a global community growing closer and more interconnected by the day, ten or twenty languages spoken by the majority of the planet’s people offer more opportunities for someone than legion of languages spoken by a few thousand people in pockets scattered around the world.The result is what we are witnessing now – what once took disasters, conquest or assimilation is now happening largely voluntarily because of global market realities. The English language is rapidly becoming the world’s lingua franca, in everything from trade, education, tourism, travel, science, diplomacy, commerce to communication, and if anything, that will only hold truer in the future, as tens of millions of people around the world are taught the language in school, learn it for international travel or business, or even pick it up from watching Hollywood movies or listening to American music or reading English-language articles on the Internet. It’s the chief second language taught in Chinese schools, the English-speaking middle class in India is one of the biggest engines of that country’s economic growth, its already a second language in Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, and even across much of the European Union, and just as Spanish has begun flowing into American English, American English has begun to flow into Latin American Spanish and Portugese. What began as a language in half of a European island by the end of the next century may serve as the world’s first global language, albeit having adopted dozens of foreign loan words and regional dialects along the way. Other major languages spoken by hundreds of millions of people like Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish or Portuguese, or major regional languages like Russian, German, Swahili, Japanese or French, or even some sub-national languages like Navajo or Sanskrit will survive or even spread in one form or another, and will likely be spoken as a first or second language for generations to come. The fates of hundreds of others are up in the air – for hundreds more, extinction is all but a certainty.There are already around a thousand languages worldwide with only a few hundred speakers remaining, many of whom are elderly, and like Grizelda Kristina and Livonian, their languages will die with them. In the United States alone, there are 151 languages considered dying, and another 85 considered at risk – examples range from a few dozen Native American languages like Plains Apeche or Salish that have less than ten living speakers (others like Mandan only have one) to more prominent examples like Afro-Seminole, Hawaiian, and even French Creole, which have a little less than or more than a thousand speakers each. To put things in perspective, there are more people that can speak fictional languages like Klingon, Na’vi, Sindarin and Dothraki than there are people who speak over a thousand real languages – to drive the point home even further, more people hear any one of those four fictional languages I mentioned spoken on a weekly basis than Welsh, Navajo, Iniut, Basque, and Yiddish combined.To me at least, that factoid is what really drives the current deluge of dying languages home. In a decade or two, let alone by this time next century, at least half of the languages spoken today, if not more, will no longer exist as spoken languages. For me, as both a writer, a history lover, and as someone who loves delving into strange and exotic cultures wildly different from my own, the loss of so many languages and the diverse people and cultures who spoke them is a tragedy, one inevitable in an increasingly interconnected world.There is a large bright side to this however – the same waves of globalization and technological advancement that is driving many smaller languages to extinction is also preserving most of them for posterity, and allowing for study, remembrance and even allowing for possible revival in the future. For the hundreds of languages that it’s too late to save, dozens of organizations and hundreds of historians, linguists and scientists work on preserving as much information about these languages as possible, writing down the grammar syntax’s, creating dictionaries of as much of the languages as possible, recording surviving speakers speech patterns, pronunciations, and even stories of their families and cultures. This means that even after the last native speakers die, not only will their language live on after them, but preserves their culture and memories as well, allowing for academic study and for others to learn the language if they want, or possibly even revive it in the future, like Hebrew or Maori. No matter what, even if the last speakers die, their languages will not, ensuring another piece of the human culture is never lost or forgotten.Of course, in the cases of hundreds of other languages, the same globalization that marginalizes lesser languages, paradoxically allows those same languages to be shared with the entire world. As the world grows more interconnected in everything from trade to social media, it’s of little surprise that people also seek to know more about whatever far off corner of the world strikes their fancy. Largely thanks to the Internet, any language in the world is just a few clicks away, with dictionaries and encyclopedias to pour over, language programs aplenty, and innumerable native speakers to chat with who are normally all too happy to help you.Languages struggling or just limited in their homeland may find a second life elsewhere in the world. Scottish Gaelic, while barely treading water in Scotland, is growing and thriving in America and Canada thanks to interest from the Scots-Irish community, along with dozens of other languages finding new speakers in descendants interested in their ancestor’s tongues, from Catalan to Congolese. Thanks to pop culture icons from The Three Stooges to Woody Allen, Yiddish loan words from chutzpah to schlep to glitch have flooded lexicons in every corner of the planet, even as Yiddish is passed on in favor of Hebrew among most Jews. The same trend of globalized pop culture that has made English as big a force as it is today has helped dozens of other beneficiary languages large and small. There are growing numbers of people in every corner of the Earth who are learning up Japanese from anime, Korean from K-pop, Cantonese from Hong Kong action flicks, Hindi from Bollywood, one of the Scandinavian tongues from the Nordic metal scene, and countless other examples.Much the same, as the world grows every closer, many nations and people have looked more towards their own heritage, and have begun to hold onto them all the more closely. Sanskrit, though a minor language in multilingual India, due to its past and role in India’s history, has been adopted as a nationalist symbol of sorts. Japan, after marginalizing the Ainu for centuries, has started working to preserve what remains of Ainu culture, including efforts to revive the Ainu language. Even as English grows ever closer to being the world’s lingua franca, the British Isles that spawned them have looked to preserve what’s left of their Celtic roots – the long-marginalized Celtic languages are being actively revived and taught across Great Britain alongside English, including thus-far successful revivals of the previously extinct Manx and Cornish languages. In the United States, a sizable number of Americans are working to learn the languages of their immigrant ancestors, as well as to bring back some of the Native American languages so hastily destroyed in the heat of Manifest Destiny – Wampanoeg recently became the first extinct Native American language to be revived. Perhaps the sudden and steady loss of so many languages has made many people cherish the ones we still have.People take for granted what a language represents, far more than just a means of expression. A language can capture the history, the culture and character of an entire society, the personification of every civilization that has ever existed, from the smallest tribes to the grandest empires. When a language goes extinct, we not only lose the way an entire society communicated, but a sight into their entire civilization as well, a part of human history and heritage gone forever. It’s why the linguistic trends of the coming century, fueled on by globalization, are both tragic as they are exciting. On one hand, by this time, one hundred years from now, as many as nine out of every ten languages in the world today will no longer be spoken. On the other, today, we work to preserve many of those dying languages for posterity, in hopes that while these languages will not truly die, but only go silent for a time. Much the same, even as we grow ever closer to a world that shares not just a global language and a handful of others that supplement it, but one that cherishes and appreciates dozens of smaller ones because of their uniqueness or heritage – perhaps in time, a few of those dormant languages may be spoken again once more. For now, while it is disheartening that many languages shall, for however long, fade to silence, we can with some pride say that the human spirit they gave voice to, whether that voice speaks English, German, Thai, Yiddish or Livonian, is alive as ever.Beautiful article Korsgaard! I’m glad you’ve looked into and grasped the double edged sword that is globalisation and how it is helping wipe out languages while at the same time preserve them as best modern scholars can. The idea of English becoming a global language is fascinating (and means many sci-fi writers indeed did get this right) and shows just how truly interconnected the world is.Thrilled you liked it Stienberg! It really is a morbidly fascinating topic – if the very nature of the languages we speak is changing, imagine just how much else will change in the coming years as well!Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *Comment Name * Email * Website



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