Friday, September 16, 2016

Endangered languages: Will your mother tongue survive?

Welcome to the extinction era! You may not be aware of it since it seems the human race is thriving, but Earth is experiencing yet another mass extinction. Scientists have lately suggested defining a new epoch, Anthropocene, as it may be us, humans, who have contributed our bit to the current unfolding of events. Human impact is endangering the animals and plants, but in truth they are not the only ones endangered. 

It's not just dinosarus. Languages become extinct too.

Migration killing unique cultures?

96% of the world's languages are spoken by only 4% of the global population according to the Sorosoro foundation. Globalization and mass migration in the 21st century have caused adoption of a dominant language in many areas to the detriment of original, local languages (what a paradox in terms of multiculturalism). It is now estimated that a substantial part of the world's presently known languages and dialects will cease to exist in written or spoken form and even become extinct in the not-so-distant future. According to UNESCO, unless this trend is reversed, half of today's 7,000+ languages will disappear by the end of this century. Columbia University linguist John McWhorter's predictions are even more gloomy with the outlook that 90% of today's existing languages will be displaced on a global scale by simplified versions of culturally dominant languages. Given that one of the important defining factors of a culture – if not the most important one – is its language, such development would irreversibly deprive us of our world's most important cultural heritage. New languages simply don't come into existence in amounts that would compensate this trend. And by definition, they cannot compensate the loss of languages that have developed through the course of human history.

These languages should begin to worry us

Despite many arguments and disagreement on the definition of a language vs. a dialect, in terms of extinction, both a language and a dialect are equal. Hundreds of languages literally waiting to cease to exist as their last living speakers pass away. In Europe, we see dialects such as Bavarian (Germany, Austria), Gordiol (Italy), Istriot (Croatia) and Cornish (UK) that are likely heading toward their terminal days. Also Walloon, spoken in a good part of Belgium, Yiddish, and Romani – the tongue of Romani (Gypsy) people across Europe – are on the endangered list. 

Panda bear - an example of successful endangered species rescue.

How to preserve a language

Systematic efforts are being made to document as many languages as possible and preserve them at least in artificial form. It is in fact feasible to revive a language suppressed or existing in "lab conditions" only, and history has shown us many an example. One is modern Hebrew, which was revived to a living official language from ancient religious texts. Also Irish and Greenlandic languages were resurrected from near-death thanks to social and political development, and they are now slowly beginning to spread. And in terms of language documentation, preservation and popularization, the translation industry can in fact help a lot :)

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