As the semester came to a close, my linguistics class touched upon language death. Language death is the extinction of a language, and with it, an essential part of a society’s culture and history. Nearly half of the world’s languages today are undergoing language death, and the result is a world that is speaking more and more in the same way.
My linguistics class learned about this topic specifically when Dr. Sam Beer came to our class to speak about African language death. He had gone to Northern Uganda to record an African language from the last living native speaker. It really struck me, how an entire language can just be wiped out. This is happening all over the world, right now, as people turn to second languages that are more useful or decide not to teach their children the language of the parents and their parents’ parents.
Language death is an issue that I don’t think most people in our society are aware of. Even in the US, where so many languages are spoken by such a large group of people, we are so used to English — and maybe Spanish — being the main language people use to communicate. It’s hard to comprehend places where dozens of languages exist together, with only several hundred or a couple thousand speakers each. There are societies where the common language is constrained to a single village or town, and to go beyond the borders of such a place is to venture into a world that speaks completely unlike you.
As the world becomes more and more global, it’s becoming more efficient to use a single language to communicate, especially since much of the world’s power is consolidated into countries that are increasingly bilingual. Perhaps it is more efficient, and more people would benefit from sharing a single language. But how much of our pasts and histories would it cost us?
It’s humbling: all the people in the world, all of the societies, all of the languages. And when another language dies, I think we lose a piece of the vitality that makes our world so wonderful.