I believe it would be safe to say that at least once in our lives, most of us were faced with the idea that language is a living organism, which is to say that, of course, it emerges, evolves and – in the end – it dies. And beyond being just a living organism, given its role to ensure communication, language is organically intertwined with the fate of the ethnic group it belongs to. Some pundits would even argue that it is a paramount form of consciousness of people and one of the highest expressions of a nation’s self-affirmation.
Who would be the one to challenge the fact that language evolves as a versatile organic entity, when history has proven that whenever social, political or environmental changes generate a gap in a language, its individual speakers use their creativity and problem-solving skills to come up with a solution – and more often than not, successful changes to the language tend to spread rather quickly and usually intuitively. After all, as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker put it, humans possess an innate capacity for complex language.
Of course, in an age of globalisation, all of us have had first-hand experience with the importance of a lingua franca, in our daily professional activity. Nowadays, it is possible to have a phone call with somebody at the other end of the world, in English, and settle your matters. Communication works, technology works, certain languages prevail as a result of what linguists call “language shift” – such as English, French, Dutch, Spanish – which are languages used by the peoples which once “conquered” the world’s remotest corners and colonized them! Undoubtedly, of all, English is today the language both an American in California – who is highly likely to be monolingual – and a Japanese in Osaka, who is highly likely to be multilingual, would use in order to communicate.
Well, I would say that all of us could agree that language extinction is not something new – it has happened many times throughout history, if we come to think about, let’s say, famous examples such as Latin or Sumerian, or maybe not quite as famous examples such as languages used by Native American groups. So, maybe there is no further need to state the obvious: globalization and especially economic mobility and urbanization have triggered mass movements of people and, subsequently, the dissolving of small communities where small languages were spoken. After all, people tend to adjust when facing adversity, right? In terms of our aforementioned language shift and small communities, when people perceive added value to a non-native language, they naturally tend to embrace said language and leave their initial, native one, behind.
Maybe the category which is the most troubled by language death is that of linguists. There are people who believe that language encompasses a very treasured, unique, cultural heritage that should be preserved, rather than abandoned, they see the culture of a certain society closely tied to its language. Furthermore, linguists are interested in deciphering how language works, in testing linguistic theories on rare languages and ultimately, in refining the concept of what language is in broad terms – as such, the death of a language is a great loss for science.
Some would argue, in this case, that given the aforementioned, linguists would be the ones to have the highest motivation to fight language death and to do their best to revive what some of us would call „our grandparents’ language”. But the truth is we have to acknowledge that such revival efforts are futile against the economic pressure of nowadays, hi-tech, urbanised society and globalisation.
And this is what has some pointing out to the fact that linguists appear to have shifted their efforts to documentary linguistics. Morris Alper basically explains this by accepting that eventually, a lot of languages are going extinct in the near future and by putting all efforts to record such languages as faithfully as possible before they disappear. Simply put, such initiatives include compiling dictionaries, glossaries, video and audio recordings of speakers etc., more like scanning and storing as much data as possible on such languages, maybe think about it as of an X-ray of a dying language, to be preserved for future reference.
So, what does humanity lose when a language dies? Would it be too mind-meltingly cheesy to see languages and translations as mirrors reflecting different ways of telling a story or new ways of seeing the world? As Marco Neves put it: “there is ghost literature behind the names of dead languages”, so maybe this is why the death of a language is always a loss for humanity, with each dead language, we have one less mirror to reflect the intricacies of the beautiful world we live in… and regardless how gloomy it may sound, maybe the only thing we can do for posterity is a thoroughly-documented, as-accurate-as possible linguistic X-ray…