How do languages die out? And why?

How do languages die out?The last member of a tribe that survived for over 65,000 years has died, taking a unique language with her. Bo had been one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Andaman Islands when the British colonised the islands. Initially the islands were used as penal colonies to accommodate survivors of the Indian War of Independence. The tribes were moved, forced to occupy a different, smaller island and subjected to so-called ‘civilising’ policies. Several were forced to live in the ‘Andaman Home.’ Interestingly, though not surprisingly, out of 150 Bo babies born in the Home, none survived beyond the age of 2. Food for thought. Read the article:

Or this one in The Guardian:

Which diseases do languages die of? Colonisation, present and past, ‘civilising,’ paternalistic policies may be the most virulent and aggressive ones. How many people speak the indigenous languages of the American natives? How many languages are threatened by blind prejudice?

How many great poems, stories were lost when the Bo language became extinct ? How much knowledge about history, ancient perspectives, animals, plants was lost, we will never know. In our arrogance, we are comfortable in the belief that our knowledge is the best, that we know better – and thus lose our connection with our roots, history and common humanity.

From another perspective, globalisation, time, culture, technologies are great equalisers, disseminators of information to the great Social Darwinian battlefield of humanity. The stronger language, community, culture wins. In an article in The New York Times, this process is seen at work in China:

On the other hand, many languages have also been saved. The Hebrew language was actively revived as a spoken, everyday language in the late nineteenth century, when Classical Hebrew and its later developments, together with other spoken Hebrew became the Modern Hebrew used today. Latin was saved from extinction through its use in the Holy See (but not the Vatican City State), apart from being preserved in classical education. Barely recognisable variations of Ancient Greek might (!) still be spoken by small pockets of descendents of Alexander the Great’s army in remote parts of Asia; Doric Greek is often uncovered in dialects spoken in the Peloponnese and other Western areas of present-day Greece. Welsh (in the United Kingdom), Maori (in New Zealand), and other languages came back from the brink.

Though the work of digital archives is commendable in preserving dying and/or dead languages in digital museums, such as “Open Language Archives Community” (OLAC) – it is, sadly, helpless in keeping them alive out there in the world.

Luckily, there are are other means of helping: and

2 thoughts on “How do languages die out? And why?”

  1. The story about dying languages is very interesting to me because I got involved here with people who work on Irish and have two PhD students dealing with bilingual Irish/English acquisition. It is actually quite a bad situation with Irish because new research shows that today’s teenagers don’t acquire the language fully, which means their kids won’t speak it at all. People here are reluctant to adopt the Welsh model (which I can understand to some extent) but haven’t come up with anything better, and the clock is ticking faster then they feel it. Maybe this is just a natural way for things to happen, but I can’t help feeling sad whenever a language dies. Each language is beauty in itself, but also it’s not only the language, it is the culture as well. I always wonder whether we can translate everything. Of course, there are clear translations, but there are also these little additional meanings which (I think) one only understands by being part of the culture. I remember reading your book and wondering whether people in England and Germany really know what it means when you describe the taste of baked lemon … There are lots of examples like this.


  2. Reading this I felt haunted. Haunted by lost words. I once read about the ‘guardians’ of languages, like those who work for Oxford Dictionary or ‘L’academie Francaise’– and have to decide when to ‘kill’ a word and when to ‘give birth’ to another… There is only so much space available for officially accepted words … some words linger on despite the fact that noone uses them anymore and then one day they are executed to make space for a new word…chilling stuff… makes you want to rush out and write a book full of archaic terms just to keep them on life support? Thanks Stella, for some thought-provoking fodder.


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