Crystal on Language Death

David Crystal is a British linguist who has written extensively on the multiplicity of the English language, and here also on the disappearance of languages.

The phrase `language death’ sounds as stark and final as any other in which that word makes its unwelcome appearance. And it has similar implications and resonances. To say that a language is dead is like saying that a person is dead. It could be no other way – for languages have no existence without people.

A language dies when nobody speaks it any more. For native speakers of the language in which this book is written, or any other thriving language, it is difficult to envision such a possibility. But the reality is easy to illustrate. Take this instance, reported by Bruce Connell in the pages of the newsletter of the UK Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL), under the heading `Obituaries’:


During fieldwork in the Mambila region of Cameroon’s Adamawa province in 1994-95, I came across a number of moribund languages … For one of these languages, Kasabe (called Luo by speakers of neighbouring languages and in my earlier reports), only one remaining speaker, Bogon, was found. (He himself knew of no others.) In November 1996 I returned to the Mambila region, with part of my agenda being to collect further data on Kasabe. Bogon, however, died on 5th Nov. 1995, taking Kasabe with him. He is survived by a sister, who reportedly could understand Kasabe but not speak it, and several children and grandchildren, none of whom know the language.

There we have it, simply reported, as we might find in any obituary column. And the reality is unequivocal. On 4 November 1995, Kasabe existed; on 5 November, it did not. … For a language is really alive only as long as there is someone to speak it to. When you are the only one left, your knowledge of your language is like a repository, or archive, of your people’s spoken linguistic past. If the language has never been written down, or recorded on tape—and there are still many which have not—it is all there is. But, unlike the normal idea of an archive, which continues to exist long after the archivist is dead, the moment the last speaker of an unwritten or unrecorded language dies, the archive disappears for ever. When a language dies which has never been recorded in some way, it is as if it has never been.

How many languages are at the point of death? How many are endangered? Before we can arrive at an estimate of the scale of the problem, we need to develop a sense of perspective. Widely quoted figures about the percentage of languages dying only begin to make sense if they can be related to a reliable figure about the total number of languages alive in the world today. So how many languages are there? Most reference books published since the 1980s give a figure of between 6,000 and 7,000 … . [blurb] By some counts, only 600 of the 6,000 or so languages in the world are `safe’ from the threat of extinction. On some reckonings, the world will, by the end of the twenty-first century, be dominated by a small number of major languages.

A language is said to be dead when no one speaks it any more. It may continue to have existence in a recorded form, of course-traditionally in writing, more recently as part of a sound or video archive (and it does in a sense `live on’ in this way) – but unless it has fluent speakers one would not talk of it as a `living language’. And as speakers cannot demonstrate their fluency if they have no one to talk to, a language is effectively dead when there is only one speaker left, with no member of the younger generation interested in learning it. But what do we say if there are two speakers left, or 20, or 200? How many speakers guarantee life for a language?

It is surprisingly difficult to answer this question. One thing is plain: an absolute population total makes no sense. The analysis of individual cultural situations has shown that population figures without context are useless. In some circumstances, such as an isolated rural setting, 500 speakers could permit a reasonably optimistic prediction; in others, such as a minority community scattered about the fringes of a rapidly growing city, the chances of 500 people keeping their ethnic language alive are minimal. …

Why should we care? Many people think we shouldn’t. There is a widely held and popular—but nonetheless misconceived—belief that any reduction in the number of languages is a benefit for mankind, and not a tragedy at all. Several strands of thought feed this belief. One reflects the ancient tradition, expressed in several mythologies but most famously in the Biblical story of Babel, that the proliferation of languages in the world was a penalty imposed on humanity, the reversal of which would restore some of its original perfectibility. In an ideal world, according to this view, there would be just one language, which would guarantee mutual understanding, enlightenment, and peace. Any circumstances which reduce the number of languages in the world, thereby enabling us to move closer to this goal, must therefore be welcomed.

There are two intractable difficulties with this view. The first is the naivety of the conception that sharing a single language is a guarantor of mutual understanding and peace, a world of new alliances and global solidarity. The examples to the contrary are so numerous that it would be impracticable to list them. Suffice it to say that all the major monolingual countries of the world have had their civil wars, and that as one reflects on the war-zones of the world in the last decades of the twentieth century, it is striking just how many of them are in countries which are predominantly monolingual – Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Burundi (the latter two standing out in Africa in their lack of multilingualism). It is, in short, a total myth that the sharing of a single language brings peace, whichever language it might be. It is difficult to see how the eventual arrival of English, Esperanto, or any other language as a global lingua franca could eliminate the pride that leads to ambition and conflict – any more than it did in the supposed unilingual pre-Babelian era.

The second difficulty, of course, relates to this question of choice. The people who are most vociferously in favour of a single world language tend to come from major monolingual nations, and make the assumption that, when the day arrives, it will be their own language which, of course, everyone will use. Problems arise when, for religious, nationalistic, or other reasons, the vote goes in different directions, as it has always done. …

Language death is a terrible loss, to all who come into contact with it: `Facing the loss of language or culture involves the same stages of grief that one experiences in the process of death and dying.”‘ We do not have to be members of an endangered community to sense this grief, or respond to it. Anyone who has worked with these communities, even over a short period, knows that it is a genuine insight, well justifying the dramatic nature of the analogy. And it is this keen, shared sense of loss which fuels the motivation and commitment of linguists, community groups, and support organizations in many parts of the world.

The growth in linguistic awareness about the problem, and the emergence of an associated activism, was one of the most exciting developments of the 1990s. Although awareness is still poor among the general public, the issues are now being much more widely discussed at professional levels, in a variety of international, national, regional, and local contexts. At one extreme, there are major campaigns such as those involved in promulgating the Barcelona Declaration of Linguistic Rights, or such initiatives as the `Red Book on Endangered Languages’ (part of the Tokyo Clearing House project). At the other extreme, there is lively debate taking place within many of the endangered communities themselves. Mechanisms and structures are now in place to channel energies. …

We have two choices. We can sit back and do nothing, and let things just wind down. … The alternative is to act, using as many means as possible to confront the situation and influence the outcome. We know that intervention can be successful. Revitalization schemes can work. But time is running out. It is already too late for many languages, but we hold the future of many others in our hands. The linguists in the front line, who are actually doing the fieldwork, therefore need as much support as we can mobilize.

Crystal, David. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp1-2, 11, 27-28, 163, 166. || Amazon || WorldCat

Previous || Chapter 1: Directory || Next