The New York Times has an article about vanishing languages. The author quotes linguists who claim that almost half of the existing languages of today are in danger of becoming extinct - some as early as next week!
Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and likely to disappear in this century. In fact, one falls out of use about every two weeks.
Some languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.
New research, reported yesterday, has found the five regions where languages are disappearing most rapidly: northern Australia, central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. All have indigenous people speaking diverse languages, in falling numbers.
The study was based on field research and data analysis supported by the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. The findings are described in the October issue of National Geographic and at languagehotspots.org.
Language is a crucial ingredient of our overall identity and a powerful connection to our cultural history. Amin Maalouf in his book on multi-faceted and overlapping identities prescribes several remedies for the fractious nature of the world where he urges us to seek common ground. But even he becomes sentimental when it comes to language - he doesn't want to cede ground when it comes to linguistic identity. This is what I wrote in the book review regarding Maalouf's fears.
The author believes that redefining identity to include all our roles in the world, is likely to reduce cultural and political strife among groups. He sees globalization as a beneficial engine towards that goal due to the inevitable give and take that occurs in opening ourselves up to newer cultures. Yet, he also worries that the same force that may some day eradicate suspicions and violence among disparate communities, could also become responsible for wholesale obliteration of "weaker" cultures. He worries mostly about the linguistic hegemony of more advanced societies whose grip on the language of science and technology could one day wipe out other less technologically developed languages. There are many sides to this debate - I am not wholly in agreement with the author on this one. Red flags about cultural preservation are raised all the time. Progress and civilization have their own momentum. Some aspects of human history get lost before the juggernaut of another more powerful force while others survive despite thousands of years of oppression, coercion and bullying.
Razib at Gene Expression, considers the idea of the loss of a language. His approach is a bit like my own. "No big deal", he says when it comes to the big picture of human progress. Losing a language, he claims, is mostly a choice, not an imposition by others. Is language then one of those things in our lives to which we are attached by habit but in reality, life wouldn't be very different without it? In this vein, see my own "heartlessly unsentimental" post about the literary classics that we came close to missing. But is a "book that never was" on the same footing as a "language that will no longer be? " Perhaps not that different, if you agree with what Razib says in his post, especially in the last paragraph:
On a more philosophical level one must ask whether the creative genius of humanity is constrained and defined by the texture of a particular language, or whether specific works are simply masks placed upon universal faces. Does the language make the myth, or does the myth simply seek a language? I lean toward the latter, though I do not deny that the ancients puns and Hebrew world-play embedded within the Pentateuch are obscured in translation. Something special, sui generis, is lost as a language winks out of existence, but the fundamental truths that we value as human beings is extant in stories which transcend the particular speech in which they are transmitted. The Epic of Gilgamesh has the same heart whether it is in Sumerian, Akkadian or English. All men live only in memory after they die.