Monday, March 23, 2009

Endangered Languages

UNESCO has an amazing site with a list of some 3000 endangered languages of the world, here:


Not only do I think this is a very interesting possible source for language design ideas, it's also inherently fascinating to me.

What are the cultural conditions under which people stop speaking the native language of their parents? Obviously there are lots of options. Here are two examples:
* There are tons of Japanese-Americans out there who were born during WWII or shortly thereafter, who were never taught Japanese by their parents because their parents didn't want those children to be associated with the enemy.
* There are also children whose parents have been told it would hurt them academically if the parents spoke to them in anything other than English (this is wrong). Consider what that does to a child - it doesn't help them to comprehend English, since usually the English of the parents is rudimentary anyway. In effect, it renders them unable to communicate effectively with their parents, and disrupts all the normal kinds of guidance communication that children need growing up.

Some kids who have a start in one language and then are forced to switch entirely to another never feel like they have "native" proficiency in any language - they're lost in between. The UNESCO database classifies languages based on the way that they are used, whether they're used in the home but not outside, whether they're not used in the home except between older individuals, or whether they're known by an individual but not really used at all.

It's sad for me to think of languages dying - of the richness of cultural heritage and the unique forms of meaning that are no longer expressed when a language disappears. Whether you look at the database out of curiosity, or while looking for language design ideas, it's interesting to contemplate not just how many languages of the Earth are endangered, but how awfully many there are to begin with.

Fascinating stuff.


  1. OTOH, Esperanto enthusiasts will tell us that the multiplicity of languages is the root cause of international misunderstandings.

    It is indeed sad that we no longer speak the Latin or Greek or Anglo-Saxon or Old Irish of our ancestors. OTOH, that sort of black rock conservativism can't hold up in a world in constant change. Generally, people shift languages for the same reasons most speakers of Syriac or Egyptian became speakers of Arabic; or that speakers of Brythonic learned Anglo-Saxon. It served their own interests to do so. Preserving linguistic ghettos marginalizes their speakers. They live on reservations or in Gaeltachta and don't get around much.

    In the US, the pattern for immigrants has generally been: the immigrant generation speaks the Old Language, their children speak both, and their grandchildren speak English. Anton Zaengle spoke German when he came here but (apparently unlike the modern immigrant of legend) learned to speak English. Mit ayn agzent, natoorlich, but he signed the front flap of the family Bible in German schrift and the back flap in English: he had become Anthony Singley. His son, Harry, had both when he went to the Ardennes in 1918. His grand-daughter Rita had to learn German in school, where it was a required course in elementary grades. His great-grandson, me, learned it in high school as an elective.

  2. I totally agree - on both counts. I feel a great deal of sadness for the loss of rich cultural resources, but on the other hand I do consider myself a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, linguist.

    I think it's really interesting how the pattern of immigrant language loss is so strong in America, while language coexistence and use is the norm in so many other places, like Africa or India. This is even independently of conquest history, which I'm sure adds whole new dimensions of complexity.

  3. You might find this chapter interesting, from Less Than Words Can Say by the infamous Underground Grammarian:

    If it takes you to the home page, click on Less Than Words Can Say over on the left; then scroll down and click on Chapter 2, "The Two Tribes"

  4. I took a look, and enjoyed it - a very interesting (if convoluted) thought experiment. I'm not sure how Sapir and Whorf would have reacted...