Why Languages Thrive and Die

This article originally appeared on the telc English blog and has been reposted here for preservation. Image: Creative Commons.

On the life and death of languages

Anyone who studies languages knows that they aren’t just groups of words or grammatical rules. Languages represent culture, connectivity, and, even more profoundly, a way of seeing the world. For example, some claim that the Eskimo–Aleut language has many more ways of describing snow than the English language, simply because their reality exposes them to a greater variety of snowfall than the average human. So when a language thrives, its culture is diffused across the places in which it’s used. Similarly, when languages fade, so too does the culture of the people who used the language, a part of how they perceived, wrote, and spoke about the world.

Evolving with the times

It should be noted that many languages that seem to be fading have, in actuality, evolved into other languages. For example, the once-widely used Latin evolved into modern romance languages like French, Italian, and Spanish. Old English evolved into Modern English. Languages are changing as we speak. Consider the many phrases and ways of speaking that we perceive today as compared to ten, twenty years prior. It’s not hard to spot the new additions #languages #change.

Hard and soft power

It’s undeniable that English is the lingua franca of contemporary society. But this wasn’t always the case. There was a period when French was the preferred language of communication. What caused the rise in English? Both hard and soft power over the past centuries.

With the expansion of what was known as the British Empire, English was propagated around the globe. English was required for trade and used by missionaries abroad. Even in places where the English people did not remain, the language was a necessity for communication in business. With the post-World War II rise of American hard and soft power, English was further popularised around the world, within both the spheres of business and pop culture. As fame breeds fame for celebrities, the popularity of a language promotes itself. Singers and moviemakers who hope to reach larger audiences create in English, thus further growing its wide usage.

Many claim that the time of English as the world’s connecting language is coming to an end. With the large number of Mandarin speakers and the rising population of French-speaking Sub-Saharan Africans, English speakers will be further dwarfed in numbers by populations speaking other tongues. However, it remains to be seen how utilised other languages will be in international transactions. Ultimately, what drives a language’s wide usage is the practicality and usefulness of knowing it.

Politics are tough

On a sadder note, there are big reasons why languages fade away. The most drastic is due to the subjugation of the peoples speaking said languages. Whether through genocide or the prohibition of a language, such restrictive policies cause languages to fade away. According to the Linguistic Society of America, of the hundreds of languages once spoken by Native Americans, only 194 remain. As recently as the 1960s, many Native American youths were prohibited from speaking their native tongues in schools. 

The cause is often societal. For students learning two languages in environments that prefer one, it’s often harder to maintain consistent use of the lesser used language. While this may not be so for Spanish speakers who learn English in America (because Spanish is still a widely used and useful language), it is the case with Kalaallisut speakers in Greenland, who are pressured to adopt Danish in both language and culture.

The Linguistic Society further estimates that, of the world’s languages, 80% may vanish within the coming century. Disappearing languages should be nurtured and promoted. Minority cultures ought to be celebrated rather than forced away. When we lose languages, we lose perceptions of reality, the unique melodies with which we sing about our world. That would be, as they say in Kalaallisut, ajortoq (“bad”).

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