As promised, I've been following up on the contentious issue of language death, and I'm beginning to formulate a research direction. I'm noticing a clear bias among those who champion the fight against language death: they all assume its bad. Over the last few days I've developed a few foundational questions that I feel are being overlooked. Question #2 is one of these paradigm shifters, so watch out!
My current research questions regarding language death:
- Is language death a separate phenomenon from language change?
- Is language death good? (or, less caustically: are there any favorable outcomes of language death?)
- How do current rates of language death compare with historical rates?
- What is the role of linguists wrt language death?
Here’s an attempt at first principles regarding language death
- language change is natural
- language change is a basic part of how language works
- language change is good
- language death is natural
I resist taking this further … for now. But I suspect that there is an analogous argument to be made for language death (or, perhaps more likely, that language death is not a separate phenomenon from language change, and analyzing it as separate clouds the important issues that linguists need to study).
In the last two days, I’ve had a brief opportunity to read up on language death, and it appears that David Crystal is one of the world’s leading figures championing the fight against language death. I’ve just read a sample of
My general impression of the
Here are what I consider to be the highlights of
- Language death is like person death because languages need people to exist
- Language death = no one speaks it anymore
- Language needs 2 speakers to be “alive”
- Speakers are “archives” of language
- A dead language with no record = never existed
- Ethnologue lists about 6,300 living languages
- Difficult estimating rate of language loss
- Almost half of Ethnologue languages don’t even have surveys (let alone descriptions)
- Difficulties in establishing relationship between dialects
accepts mutual intelligibility criteria as definition of language (Quechua = 12 diff languages) Crystal accepts 5k-7k as range of # of languages Crystal
- Footnote 19 = maybe 31,000-600,000 languages ever existed; 140,000 reasonable “middle road” estimate
- A language must have fluent living speakers to be “alive”
- How many speakers to be viable -- Unclear
- 10,000 – 20k speakers suggests viability in the short term
- 96% of world population speaks just 4% of the existing languages
- 500 languages have less than 100 speakers
- 1500 less than 1000
- 3,340 less than 10,000
- Therefore, about 4k languages are in danger of death
- Difficult to estimate current rate of death (me: surely it must be even MORE difficult to estimate historical rates)
- Canadian survey = appears to be a downward trend in aboriginal languages spoken at home
- Teen years seems to be when people begin to dis-favor their home language
- Experts agree – majority of world languages are in danger in next 100 years
- How to determine which languages are “more” endangered than others