Language: life and death in numbers

“None of your living languages for Miss Blimber. They must be dead—stone dead—and then Miss Blimber dug them up like a Ghoul.”

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, 1848

 

Introduction

Should we mourn when languages die? Or is it just the natural order of things, like empires falling, dinosaurs disappearing, and yesterday’s cell phones piling up in the cell phone graveyard?

David Harrison’s When Languages Die begins: “The last speakers of probably half of the world’s languages are alive today.” For those of us who love language and languages (even more than we love empires, dinosaurs, and cell phones), that’s a chilling thought. Here are some facts and figures to make you ponder:

6000

The most common estimate of the number of the world’s languages. The figure is disputed because languages spoken in remote parts of the world are still being “discovered”, and old languages are dying out. The number also depends on what you categorize as a language. For example, there are many different types of Arabic. Is this one language or more?

845 million

Number of speakers of Mandarin, the world’s most widely spoken language.

8

Number of languages with over 100 million speakers. The languages are Mandarin, Spanish, English, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese.

 

Children in Papua New Guinea, a nation of extraordinary linguistic diversity

Children in Papua New Guinea, a nation of extraordinary linguistic diversity

800

Number of languages thought to be spoken in Papua New Guinea, home to the world’s most concentrated cluster of diverse languages.

 

 

50

Percentage of world’s languages spoken in Asia and the Pacific. According to Ethnologue, the world’s languages are unevenly distributed: 31% of languages are from Africa; 15% from the Americas; 4% from Europe.

133

Number of languages thought to be spoken by 10 or fewer people.

51

Number of languages thought to be spoken by only 1 remaining person.

2467

Number of endangered languages, according to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Perhaps surprisingly, the danger is not primarily based on the number of living speakers. According to linguist Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia, “If [a language] isn’t useful, the community will be forced to abandon it. Indigenous people in Latin America face all kinds of discrimination, and necessity dictates that, sooner or later, they adopt Spanish. Once that happens, the attrition is fast. Where a group is isolated from external pressures, they aren’t forced to accept the dominant language. So you can’t just go by the demographics.”

191

Number of endangered languages in the U.S., the country with the highest number. Brazil has 190 endangered languages, though by the time you read this, the figures may have changed.

Every 2-3 weeks

On average, the rate at which the world loses one of its languages.

 

Jessie Little Doe Baird

Jessie Little Doe Baird

1

Living person who speaks Wôpanâak as their native language. In 2010, Jessie Little Doe Baird, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, in Massachusetts, had a vision: her ancestors told her to fulfill a prophecy that their language would return to the world. Wôpanâak hadn’t been spoken for 100 years, but it survived in written documents such as a 1663 translation of The Bible. Baird was pregnant at the time of her vision. Now her child is the first native speaker of Wôpanâak in seven generations.

1826

Year of the Tasmanian genocide, in which most of the 6000 native people of Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land) were murdered by British settlers. The result, once the final Tasmanian Aboriginal language speaker—a woman named Fanny Cochrane Smith– had died in 1905, was the complete loss of a language and culture.

3

Number of different languages now spoken in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. When this geographical area was called Yugoslavia, the people spoke slightly varying dialects of Serbo-Croat. After the wars in the 1990s led to the partition of Yugoslavia into three states, their languages were deemed also to be separate.

1991

Year UNESCO passed a resolution stating: “As the disappearance of any one language constitutes an irretrievable loss to mankind, it is for UNESCO a task of great urgency to respond to this situation by promoting … the description—in the form of grammars, dictionaries, and texts—of endangered and dying languages.”

 

Tel Aviv, home of the Hebrew language

Tel Aviv, home of the Hebrew language

1909

Founding of Tel Aviv, Israel’s first Hebrew-speaking city. Hebrew provides the only instance in history of a “dead” language being resurrected to become the native language of millions of people. It went from being a sacred language used almost exclusively in religious ceremonies to becoming the national language of Israel, used in daily life. The transformation occurred between the late 19th and early 20th century. Politics, ideology, modernization, and literature all played a role in the resurrection of the language.

Conclusion

Steven Pinker begins his 1994 masterpiece The Language Instinct: “I have never met a person who is not interested in language.” I second that. The subject is captivating. How did language begin? Are humans the only users? What is lost when we lose a language? And is it worth saving dying languages? UNESCO thinks so. What about you?

 



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