Dying Languages – Cause for Concern?
An obsolete language dies every two weeks, a new study reports.
When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets together, there’s still no one to talk to. Native Australian Charlie Mungulda is the only person alive known to speak that language, one of thousands around the world on the brink of extinction. From rural Australia to Siberia to Oklahoma, languages that embody the history and traditions of people are dying, researchers said Tuesday. While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them.
Five hotspots where languages are most endangered were listed Tuesday in a briefing by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society. In addition to northern Australia, eastern Siberia and Oklahoma and the U.S. Southwest, many native languages are endangered in South America — Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — as well as the area including British Columbia, and the states of Washington and Oregon.
Losing languages means losing knowledge, says K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. “When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.”
That sure seems like a stretch. How much scientific knowledge will we really lose if Charlie Mungulda is unable to pass on Amurdag? Aren’t languages which are being lost almost by definition those of illiterate peoples? Do they really have a lot to teach us about mathematics and the space-time continuum?
Further, doesn’t the death of a language represent cultural assimilation? Presumably, the South American and Canadian tribes who are no longer speaking the ancient tongues of their forebears are now speaking Spanish, Portuguese, English, or French? Don’t they thereby gain some modicum of cultural knowledge by thus gaining access to the learnings of advanced societies? And why, because they now speak a more common language, would they forget what they used to know about reindeer and edible flowers?
Also, one would think with linguistic assimilation would come a breakdown in tribalism. The ability to communicate with neighboring peoples would presumably increase the ability to resolve misunderstandings and avoid bloodshed.