When a language dies, its death is final. The rapid extinction of languages has serious repercussions for human history. It results in the impoverishment of our cultural heritage and the loss of a large amount of information that represents an essential part of humanity’s unwritten archives.
Any language in its grammar and vocabulary contains traces of its origins, cultural history and relations with other languages.
Unfortunately, the development that humanity has achieved in the social and cultural fields has been accompanied by a decrease in the number of languages spoken by people in different areas of the world.
There are now between 5,000 and 6,700 languages in the world, according to linguists. Fewer than half this number will survive the current century.
Many languages spoken by small groups living in social environments not capable of surviving the challenges of the age are likely to disappear.
It is known that a language becomes extinct when the new generations stop learning it, as has happened with some French dialects and several of the minority languages of the former Soviet Union.
Similar phenomena have also been observed in China, Taiwan and Australia.
This extinction will be more dangerous if a dominant language has an advanced literary and civilisational heritage or if it is associated with a major religion.
Missionary campaigns carried out by different Christian organisations in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas in the past destroyed traditional cultures and religions and had a destructive effect on local languages even though the missionaries intended to translate the Christian Gospels into them.
However, in discussing languages threatened with extinction, we should differentiate between languages capable of resisting devastation, which include those spoken by large numbers of speakers, and those which are less able to do so as they are spoken by between a few hundred and a few thousand speakers.
Fifty two per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.
Written languages and those that have cultural and literary traditions and are taught in schools are less likely to disappear.
The same thing is true for languages used in the state bureaucracy, the judiciary and the army, where language can be a strong symbol of patriotism.
Endangered languages also differ from one region to another. In Africa, for example, there are some 150 to 220 languages out of a total of 700 to 2,000 which are under threat. Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania head the list of countries having one or more endangered languages in Africa.
In Latin America, of the continent’s 470 to 500 languages, between 30 and 50 per cent are thought to be under threat of extinction.
Brazil probably has the most endangered languages. In Central America, the local languages of Mexico are also under threat.
In China, India and Southeast Asia, where local populations speak more than 1,000 languages, deterioration in language use has been observed.
In Northeast Asia, of the region’s 47 languages, only four, including Mongolian, may be able to survive.
In Europe, linguists say some 72 out of 123 languages may disappear, including Gaelic, Breton, Basque, Croatian and some dialects of Greek.
In the US and Canada, there are about 200 endangered languages. The Eskimo and Navajo languages may survive until the end of the century.
In the Pacific, many languages are in a state of crisis.
A century and a half ago, the region had some 1,830 languages, but today 150 Australian languages have vanished. However, the region is still considered to be one of the most diverse in the world in terms of language use.
In New Guinea, for example, a small population speaks 960 languages, some one-seventh of the world’s linguistic diversity.
Cases of language extinction usually take place at a gradual rate. Bilingualism is also spreading as more and more societies speak English in addition to their own languages.
Yet, this can be a double-edged sword as in order to gain benefits such as higher salaries, many people neglect their original tongues and start learning a language which is economically more advantageous to them.
They may also encourage their children to learn it to the detriment of their own native tongue, a phenomenon familiar from some Gulf and Arab Maghreb countries.
The extinction of any language may be intentional, and in the past some languages were wiped out for imperialistic reasons.
Today, language extinction is more likely to be the result of globalisation and the spread of the Internet across the globe.
In some areas, it should be possible to save languages from extinction, although the tools are limited. Some achievements have already been made in North and South America, Europe and the Pacific.
Linguists estimate that some 3,000 languages are likely to survive until the end of the present century, constituting some 50 per cent of the total.
In other words, nearly half of the world’s languages will become extinct. As a result, there is an urgent need for the international community and national governments to introduce policies to help protect such languages.
This could be done through officially registering languages in Africa, Asia, South America, especially Brazil and New Guinea.
The rate of language extinction today has become so rapid that linguists in some cases have not had time to prepare detailed descriptions of them.
It has therefore been suggested that national programmes should be put in place to train linguists and to record language data in their original audio form.
This should help future linguists to understand more about what the world is losing or may soon have lost if nothing to save these languages is done.
* The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Saving the world’s languages