How Many Languages are there in the World Today?
What is a Language?
- 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”.
“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."
How Languages Become Extinct?
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.
- 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.
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.)
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?
- 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?
- 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.
- the valiant Cherokee people
- the Mixtec (the lofty people of the clouds)
- the Taiwanese First Nation
- the Santals, the aboriginal of India