With the possible exception of fire, language is humanity’s most helpful and enduring asset. Our ability to communicate has led to most of the crowning traits that define us as a civilized species. We tell stories, record history, chronicle experiences, tweet our breakfast choices, and write blog posts.
That said, language is more of an evolving phenomenon than a stable achievement. Let’s take a look at where language is, where it’s been, and what’s happening to it.
From ‘Are’are to Zway, there currently exist close to 7,000 known languages around the world. That shocking quantity harkens back to a time when the planet’s geography was not easily conquered by planes, trains or automobiles, and the ability to understand one’s neighbor was a vital survival skill.
The status of a language is similar to that of a living being: Languages are either alive, dead, or extinct. Languages “die” when they are no longer used by native people, often as a result of colonialism or other contributing factors that cause the cultures in question to vanish or disperse from history. Dead languages are commonly used in religious ritual (e.g., Biblical Hebrew, Latin) and scientific and legal contexts that use formal or specialized terminology.
Extinct languages are those that have entirely fallen out of use, or have evolved beyond the point of recognition. Even though its inheritors live to this day, Old English is technically an extinct language. Here are a handful of extinct languages worthy of further inspection. It’s fascinating how, in the absence of documentation, some languages existed only theoretically, or at least with minimal evidence to solidify their place in history:
- Pictish (Scotland, Early Middle Ages)
- Sorothaptic (Iberian Peninsula, Bronze Age)
- Gothic (Germany, 4th – 6th c.)
- Scythian (Central Asia/Iran, 800 BC)
- Weyto (Ethiopia, lost in 19th c.)
Interestingly, written Korean (Hangul) was not adopted until the 20th century. North and South Korea used Chinese characters until the pressures of colonialism led them to use a writing system created five hundred years earlier. This is a unique example of Darwin’s “artificial selection” in the field of language evolution. Imagine telling 78 million people to change the way they write their spoken language! Thankfully, Hangul was designed so that a peasant could learn it in ten days. It’s doubtful that the same could be said of English.
The number of living languages has diminished over the years, with no evidence of a turnaround. Between J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of three usable Elvish dialects (Qenya, Quenya and Sindarin), Star Trek’s Klingon Dictionary, and the unique dialect of LOLCats, we’re not creating new languages fast enough to repopulate the numbers we once enjoyed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While common languages spread geographically, so does our ability to exchange culture, ideas and entertainment. There’s a certain amount of convenience to learning a second language as opposed to a third of fourth.
At the same time, one could argue that the loss of language represents a loss of culture. We run the risk of becoming too homogenized. There’s plenty to be said for cultures that order their thoughts and expressions in unique patterns that only their native language could accommodate. The Mayan language of Akatek, spoken in regions of Central America and Mexico, uses a grammatical asset that conveys movement and direction without the necessity of physical gestures. Whether for reasons of survival or identification, that trait was once an important feature of daily communication. It’s an example of the way that a language can influence how people orient themselves in relation to the world around them.
Maintaining dying languages within their home cultures might seem like an uphill battle. The world moves very quickly, and it’s no longer a given that a grandchild will speak the same language as his or her grandparents. Norway’s Global Seed Vault safeguards plant matter in case of global catastrophe; a similar repository for languages could effectively history-proof our endangered tongues.
And in fact, such a repository exists. The Endangered Languages Project, sponsored by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, “puts technology at the service of the organizations and individuals working to confont language endangerment by documenting, preserving, and teaching [endangered lanaguages].” Originally developed by Google, oversight of the project is now led by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and The Institute for Language information and Technology at Eastern Michigan University.
Any time a language can be preserved, the odds are higher that the stories in that language will also be preserved. As the Endangered Languages Project puts it, “With every language that dies, we lose an enormous cultural heritage […] most importantly, we lose the expression of communities’ humor, love, and life.” As such, even though the 15 languages that Verbal Ink transcribes and translates are far from endangered and represent just a small percentage of the roughly 7000 extant lanaguges, we have a common goal with the Endangered Languages Project: helping people share their stories and experiences in their own languages.
How many languages are there? Roughly 7,000. How many of them are worth preserving? Every last one of them.