Grief can be a fickle thing. The loss of someone close to us can throw us into periods of personal darkness and pain for months, even years. Human beings have remarkable capacity of bearing such things.
Thanks to modern technology, we are aware that literally dozens of species are going extinct every day and a rate at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate. Yet other than a little flutter of concern, we carry on as though such a reality doesn’t exist. That’s one of those ironic things about living in affluence: we are more aware but less concerned of such things than ever. And unlike those mass extinction events that occur occasionally in history, these current extinction rates are caused by only one species on those planet – us.
Less known is the permanent loss of languages that occur regularly. For humans, language is everything. It’s how we communicate, think, suffer, celebrate and carry on our daily routines. Without a capacity to put things in words, life has little else for us.
In 2007, linguists informed the world that of the 7,000 languages spoken today, nearly half are in danger of extinction and will disappear in the next few decades. That rate is now increasing, with a language falling out of use at a rate of one every two weeks. Some fade away at the death of the last surviving speaker of a language, but the majority inevitably vanish from living in bilingual cultures in which one language becomes dominant because of its use in school, in business and in the entertainment industry.
Recent research has helped us determine what regions are most at risk. There are five of them and their location might surprise you – Central South America, Northern Australia, North America’s upper Pacific coast (including British Columbia), Eastern Siberia and the Southwest United States. What they all have in common is the occupation by aboriginal people speaking diverse languages but in decreasing numbers.
A joint study between National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages revealed that more than half of these endangered languages have “no written form and are vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” The study notes that these languages leave no dictionaries when they pass into oblivion, no text, no records of accumulated knowledge or history of the culture as it vanishes.
As profound as this is, it contains a deeper meaning for us when we realize just how little we really care about the loss of languages that have been with us for millennia. According to UNESCO research, between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct and one-third of the world’s remaining languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. They conclude with a real kicker: 50 to 90% of our remaining languages will disappear by next century.
It should trouble us to learn that languages face an extinction rate that exceeds that of birds, animals, fish or plants and that the cause of such a loss is again rooted in the practices of the human species. Globalization has shaped us into a planet where dominance becomes oppressive – wealth, military might, culture and, yes, language. For much of these last two centuries, dominant cultures have imposed language on indigenous people, frequently through coercion, and in places like coast British Columbia with devastating results. And factors like climate change and urbanization force linguistically diverse and rural communities to migrate and assimilate to new communities with new languages.
Some reading this data will merely shrug, saying that, though it’s sad in its own way, it is the price of progress and adaptation. Maybe, but it’s the fact that we tolerate such extinctions with little thought that is the most troubling portent for humanity. It’s not the reality and scale of such loss that should haunt us, but our apparent indifference to it all. Lose a language and you also lose an identity, a history, a personality and an ability to face the future with the learned lessons of the past.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” penned Ludwig Wittgenstein. But what happens when language disappears altogether? Our world is gone, replaced by some globalized and artificial culture that carries little of our past and virtually nothing of our shared history. It forms one of our greatest crimes against our indigenous people, but perhaps greater still is that we tolerate this development with little true thought of what it means.