Monday, 8 February 2010

Languages Are Becoming Extinct Faster Than Animal Species

How does it feel to be alone in the world, when no one else speaks or understands your language?

While travelling, you can easily feel being in such a situation even though your mother tongue would be English, Mandarin Chinese, or Spanish, which are all spoken by millions of others. A call home or to a friend would allay fears when you hear familiar sounds or read familiar symbols on printed or electronic media. You know that even if you are temporarily surrounded by strange people, symbols and sounds, your ‘own people’ exist back home.

But to live with the certain knowledge that no matter how much you travel or call around, you are the last speaker of your language is probably gruesome.

Boa sr. had to live with this feeling for decades. Last week an ancient language Aka-Bo in India’s Andaman Islands became extinct as the last speaker Boa sr. died.

Listen to her hauntingly chanting voice here.

How Many Languages are there in the World Today?

Currently there are about 7000 languages is regular use. Linguists claim that half of these would probably disappear by the end of this century.

About 80 “global” languages account for 80% of the world’s population’s language needs. The rest of the languages are disappearing faster than animal species are becoming extinct. Here are samples of 2000 languages from the brilliant collection of Zhang Hong, an amateur linguist in Beijing, China.

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If you want to count 1 to 10 in 5000 languages go to Mark Rosenfelder’s site here.

What is a Language?

Ask people from different professions and you’ll get very different definitions of language. A linguist would say it is ‘a system for encoding and decoding information’. A man in the street would probably say that language is a way of communicating shared by a group of people.

Language is not only spoken and written, but could be symbols and formalized signs, gestures and movements as in: 

  • the language of mathematics
  • sign language
  • the language of flower arrangement or 
  • the language of art.

Language has certain characteristics which go beyond standard definitions.
  • Language is not limited to humans. There is for example bird language.
  • Languages can be natural like French or Japanese or artificial like Volapuk, Esperanto or computer languages like COBOL, Erlang or Fortran.
  • Language can also be miraculous, consisting of subjective human acts, which Mark Twain describes by saying “Kindness is the language, which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”.
  • Language can be very elusive and complex in nature so that most of the people even flatly refuse to listen even if they hear and see. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of this when he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard”.

There are many ways of studying and understanding languages. One such modern concept is phoneme, the smallest segmental unit of sound used to form meaningful contrasts among utterances. Modern linguists utilize this to study the mechanics and structure of languages. This, paradoxically, is by no means new. Pāini, the 5th century BC Indian grammarian and his 2nd century BC colleague Tolkāppiyam were using similar concepts.

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History is Always Written By the Victors.

Whenever we try to understand the past, we have to do it through language records or artefacts. Rather often we tend to forget one aspect of written records. It seems that throughout history, victors always choose to use descriptions and interpretations of events that is most suitable to their own ends and that vilify the vanquished.

George Orwell gives an example from personal experience:
“During part of 1941 and 1942, when the Luftwaffe was busy in Russia, the German radio regaled its home audience with stories of devastating air raids on London. 
Now, we are aware that those raids did not happen. But what use would our knowledge be if the Germans conquered Britain? For the purpose of a future historian, did those raids happen, or didn't they? 
The answer is: If Hitler survives, they happened, and if he falls they didn't happen."
Even if we understand the language, we seldom go beyond language to question our basic assumptions. This we can do by only adopting a critical enough view that would often fly against majority opinion.

How Languages Become Extinct?

Genocide is one of the most common causes: When Europeans invaded Tasmania in the 19th century many cultures along with languages were snuffed.

The Hun Empire at its largest just before Attila’s death in 453 A.D. Photo source:
  • Hunnic, the language of the mighty empire of Attila the Great (4 times larger than the Roman empire) became extinct in the centuries following the dissolution of the ‘empire’.
  • Apalachee language of Florida, USA disappeared when this proud people, who practiced a form of football betting already in the 15th century and scalping the enemy lost to the Spaniards.

Repression from the larger group is also common and an ongoing process. 
  • In Denmark’s Greenland, the Kalaallisut is dying away under pressure from Danish.
  • Ethnic Kurds in Turkey are forbidden by law to teach or even print their language.
  • Native American speakers in the USA were punished for speaking their languages in schools until the 1960s 
  • The aboriginals in Australia also were forbidden from using their languages even into the 1970s.
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Sometimes even mighty majority languages become extinct. The Tai Ahom language, which was the exclusive court language of the Ahom Kingdom from1228 to the 16th century, in eastern India, has become extinct. Could one reason be that in Tai Ahom, Verbs do not have tenses, and nouns do not have plurals. Adverbs, strings of verbs and auxiliaries describe time periods. (source: Hongladarom, K. (2005). Thai and Tai Languages. In Encyclopedia of linguistics (Vol. 2, pp. 1098-1101). New York, NY: Fitzroy Dearborn.)

Akkala Sami, a language spoken in the Sami villages of A´kkel and Ču´kksuâl in the Kola Peninsula of Russia became extinct when the last speaker Marja Sergina died in 2003. This language used Cyrillic alphabet for writing.

No serious person has ever suggested that one language becomes extinct, as it is ‘inferior’ to another one.

What Does Language Extinction Mean?
  • Does it really matter if a language dies out? 
  • Is that a loss if we forever bury sounds and symbols from the ancient forests of our history? 
  • Does it mean nowadays that we would have Internet sites devoted to that language, while no one would actually use it?
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  • Would it be better if we had only one world language?
  • What is a language? Is it only a collection of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules that have become standard practice over time?
  • Is language a key to how different cultures reflect ways of being, thinking, doing and knowing?
  • Is language a map in the mirror of our soul of how we as human beings relate to the cosmos and the ceaseless phenomena of life?
Many people say that language is the basis of identity. Many wars have been fought and are being fought over language and ethnicity issues. In India, following the departure of the British, states were tentatively partitioned on the basis of languages and the debate continues.

If language is identity, do polyglots (people who speak many languages) have multiple identities?
  • Do bilingual people have Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde struggling in them for control?

How Can Endangered Languages Be Saved?

Modern Hebrew in Israel is the most glorious example of an ancient language being revived and put into daily use. In New Zealand, the Maori elders have established kohanga reo or languages nests (with govt. support) to preserve their culture and languages. This model can also be seen working in Alaska, and Hawai.

In India today, census figures reveal that only 14 000 people speak Sanskrit (one of the 22 official Indian languages). There are many organized camps in India to promote Sanskrit being used as an everyday language. In 2003, a Hindu nationalist government panel even recommended translating English nursery rhymes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” into Sanskrit.

Modern technology, especially the Internet can do wonders to help prevent languages dying out as shown by these exemplary efforts of
There are various organisation like the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, founded by Dr. Gregory Anderson help to document, revitalise and maintain endangered languages. They have devised an extraordinary method called Adopt a Language for helping a language. All the best to their valiant efforts!

What is Lost in Translation?

Many ideas, concepts and impressions of phenomena cannot be accurately translated. They are lost in translation.

Here is a site for you to test how even a simple sentence changes in translation.

If you need to confuse your friends by sending your message (in English) a bit scrambled, try this.

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