On our planet there are over 7000 spoken languages. Within a century, approximately 90% are expected to become extinct.
The process of language extinction is ongoing and accelerating. One of the primary causes behind this process is globalisation, which breaks intercultural barriers and thereby promotes the most spoken languages, including Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, French, Arabic, Russian, Hindi, etc. at the expense of the others. Because of this, speakers of minority languages often choose to not pass on their language to their children, instead raising them in a more mainstream language. Another leading factor in language extinction is the lack of recognition. Certain languages have no official status and are not used. It also happens that more centralised states within countries try to replace minority languages by the country’s main language, as was for example observed in the United Kingdom’s history, with Welsh and Scottish Gaelic being banned from the education systems until the 20th century. It is also interesting to note that approximately 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by only 3% of the global population.
Different levels of danger
The United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) defines the following scale to classify the situation of an idiom in one of seven different levels, represented by indices:
- 5 safe: the language is learnt and used by all ages.
- 5- stable yet threatened : the language is learnt and used by all ages, but due to regional multilingualism the dominant language has usurped certain relatively important sectors of communication.
- 4 unsafe: the language is still transmitted as a native tongue, but it’s use is restricted to certain social environments, eg. in the household.
- 3 definitely endangered: the language is no longer being learnt by children, making the parental generation the youngest speakers. Typically, the children can understand their parents in their native language who still address them in their native language but the children tend to respond in a dominant language.
- 2 seriously endangered: the youngest generation of native speakers is the grandparental generation. Often, the parental generation can still speak/understand the language, but will not use it with their children.
- 1 critically endangered: the youngest generation of speakers is the great-grandparental generation. The language is not used in any daily communications. Oftentimes the older generations will remember parts of the language but not necessarily be proficient as there may be no one with whom to speak the language.
- 0 extinct: there is no one who can speak or remember the language.
Irish: an official and yet endangered language in Europe
Irish, also known as Gaelic and natively as Gaeilge, is a Goidelic Celtic language (therefore very closely related to Scottish Gaelic and Manx, more distantly related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton), native to the island of Ireland. It has a standard written form used in teaching and official documents, An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, regulated by the House of the Oireachtas. It is constitutionally the first official language of the Republic of Ireland and its national language (with English being the second official language). Due to its official status, it became one of the 24 official languages of the European Union in 2007. Within the United Kingdom, it is recognised as a regional language of Northern Ireland.
The Irish government refers to certain areas with higher concentrations of Irish speakers, in which Irish is still used as a daily vernacular language, as the Gaeltacht. Unfortunately, the Gaeltacht is seriously threatened, as is the language generally throughout Ireland. It is the native language of a very small fraction of the people. It is spoken to varying degrees by 39,8% of the population in the 2016 census. However, the number of speakers is slowly decreasing, the number in the 2016 census being 1.6% lower than in 2011. This overall decrease in speakers is due to the fact that English is the major language of communication in daily life. It is classified as definitely endangered. That being said, of all six modern Celtic languages, it is the second least endangered language, with Welsh being classified as only vulnerable, and with Scottish Gaelic a close third, also definitely endangered.
Hawaiian, known natively as ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, is a co-official language alongside English of the State of Hawaii, United States. It is a Polynesian language (a family consisting of approximately 40 languages spoken in the Pacific), a sub-branch of the much larger Austronesian family containing 1257 languages (which include for example Malay, Indonesian, and Tagalog), which makes it the second-largest language family in terms of number of speakers. It is spoken in the Hawaiian archipelago, and is very closely related to Marquesan and Tahitian. Much like its sister Polynesian languages, Hawaiian has a very limited phonology: its alphabet uses only 13 letters. It started developing around 300 CE when humans first reached the archipelago. Following the independence of Hawaii from the British Empire and the creation of the Kingdom of Hawaii, it was the official and national language of the country, although the influence of English caused a gradual decrease in the number of speakers. However, the decline of Hawaiian became remarkable following the 1893 coup d’état which overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani, when Hawaiian was banned from the education system, to be replaced fully by English, going to lengths such as physical punishments on students who would speak Hawaiian. However, in recent decades, after it’s integration into the United States, efforts have been made to revitalize the language, including immersion schools and university degrees. The language however remains classified as critically endangered. In the island of Niʻihau, rather isolated, it is still spoken as a native language and English as a foreign language, and remains in common usage in daily life.
A Diverse World
Certain people argue that the extinction of minority languages can be seen as a positive process, as it presents advantages, claiming, not without reason, that it brings down linguistic barriers that separate human groups and facilitates intercultural communication. However, although those arguments are true, each language offers a different vision of the world, whether it be by its grammar or its vocabulary, as languages are often mirror images of the society in which they are spoken, and express things very differently from one another. For example, certain African languages feature what is called a “frustrative” tense, which carries the meaning that the expected results were not met. Another grammatical feature, evidentiality, found around the globe but most concentrated in Amazonian languages which, when making a statement, indicate via verb conjugation how you know that what you’re saying is true (did you see it, feel it, hear it, guess based on evidence, and so forth). Some other languages don’t use the most common left/right orientation system, but so-called “absolute” orientation. For example, in Taba, an Austronesian language spoken in Indonesia, objects are positioned relatively to the sea, meaning that an object is on the side of the sea or of the island relative to a reference object.
The languages of the world present a huge richness and diversity, in grammar, phonology, writing systems and in vocabulary, but this diversity is currently moribund.
Searching for Solutions
A number of organisations now exist with the purpose of addressing the issue of endangered languages, of which UNESCO is by far the largest organisation to promote minority languages. Other organizations are also active in this field, such as SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) International, a Christian non-profit who amongst other activities runs the large linguistic database, Ethnologue, and has been recognised by UNESCO for their work in Asia.
To avoid the dying out of the world’s linguistic diversity, it is the job of linguists to record minority languages before they disappear, and, should there be a will to keep the language alive, the duty of the governments to work alongside the concerned communities to maintain and promote endangered languages, namely by including it in the education system as is already done in many countries around the globe.
Faez C. / S7 / EEB1 Uccle
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