It is estimated that there are approximately 7,000 natural languages today, with many dying all the time. It is also estimated that there were a maximum of 10,000 in the world a few centuries ago before the worst effects of European colonization were felt. But do you know how many languages went extinct in the 20th century?
During the twentieth century, 242 known languages became extinct.
Why Do Languages Go Extinct?
Why do languages die out? It takes a long time, even several generations, for a culture and a people to completely abandon an entire language. The older language gradually erodes when a new dominant language appears on the scene.
Linguists have identified the stages at which languages become extinct:
- When children only speak their parents’ language at home or in the company of relatives, the language is considered vulnerable.
- When children stop studying a language, even if it is their mother tongue, it is considered endangered.
- A language is also considered critically endangered when grandparents are the youngest people who understand it.
- Language shifts occur throughout history as one language supplants another. For example, in the United Kingdom, the transition from Cornish to English has been ongoing for decades and continues to this day.
Mandarin is becoming the dominant language throughout China, except in Hong Kong and Kowloon trade cities, where Cantonese is rapidly spreading.
After the Greeks conquered most of the known world, the Greek language spread, and a standard form, koine Greek, containing many words borrowed from conquered cultures, became the common language of the Greek empire.
As a result, the more formal Attic Greek dialect became scarce, appearing only in ancient writings. Koine Greek is more similar to the modern Greek language.
As the Roman Empire crumbled, Latin fragmented into the more common languages of Rome’s conquered peoples.
As a result, the Romance languages of Europe, and the former Roman Empire, such as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian, were born.
When asked why do languages become extinct? One must blame political persecution, globalization, and a lack of preservation.
For much of the twentieth century, governments around the world coerced indigenous peoples to adopt a common national language, pushing indigenous languages to the margins—and, eventually, to the ash heap of history. (Source: Ilstranslations)
Saving Languages from the Extinction
According to field linguist David Harrison, 85% of languages have yet to be documented. Languages must be reduced to written records that include a dictionary if they are to be preserved.
That may appear daunting for the many languages that are only spoken and not written, but it is critical if these languages are to survive. Indigenous peoples’ participation is critical to making this happen.
Fluent speakers can best define and diagnose their language and assist linguists in understanding, recording, and translating it for others to discover and use.
Linguists agree that for a language to be saved, it must be driven by the people who speak it. Pride in their language and culture and a desire to preserve it will determine whether it is added to the list of living or extinct languages.
At International Language Services, we have a team of native language translators who are also subject matter experts. We are committed to human language preservation, progression, and proliferation for all of your business or organization’s needs. (Source: Ilstranslations)
Image from Martech.Org