The world’s 6,000 languages are dying off quickly, and up to half of them will probably become extinct during the next century, experts predicted Saturday.
“I call this a catastrophe - the rate of loss of mankind’s linguistic diversity,” said Michael Krauss of the University of Alaska.
While once languages were suppressed by government policy, the forces conspiring against native tongues now seem to be largely electronic. Satellite television, cellular telephones, the Internet all let people speak to each other instantly all over the world, and all drive the need for languages that many understand.
In most cases, that language is English. Even defenders of dying languages concede this is not necessarily a bad thing, since a common language clearly allows people to communicate easily. For instance, scientists the world over often speak to each other in English, whether their labs are in France or Taiwan.
However, linguists attending a conference Saturday of the American Association for the Advancement of Science urged the preservation of small languages as second, or even third, languages, rather than allowing them to be swallowed up by English, Arabic, Spanish and other major languages.
“We should care about this,” Krauss said. “The world will be less interesting, less beautiful.”
Krauss said that in prehistoric times, humans probably spoke between 10,000 and 15,000 languages. This is now down to about 6,000 and dropping fast.
Krauss, who documents native Alaskan languages, estimated that between 20 percent and 50 percent of the world’s languages are no longer being learned by children.
“They are beyond endangerment,” he said. “They are the living dead,” and will all disappear in the next century.
The average language is spoken by between 5,000 and 10,000 people. However, Krauss said that only those with more than 1 million speakers have a good future.
He estimated that about 600 of the world’s languages are assured of still being around in the year 2100.
Many of the small languages on the verge of dying out are in tropical parts of the world, especially Africa and Indonesia, he said.
But the United States is also losing languages fast, especially in California, which has been called the world’s third most linguistically diverse region, after New Guinea and the Caucasus.
Leanne Hinton of the University of California at Berkeley said North America has between 200 and 250 native languages, and about 50 of them are in California.
All the California Indian languages are in trouble. None is being learned widely by children or used in daily commerce. Twenty have died this century.
The latest extinction occurred last month with the death of the lone speaker of Northern Pomo, a woman in her 80s.
Hinton said native American languages were suppressed until the 1960s. Indian children sent to boarding schools were punished for speaking their parents’ language.
Now, she said, a movement exists among California Indians to learn the elders’ tongue before it’s too late. Some tribes have set up summer language camps for youngsters.
“Despite the desires of the language activists, the outlook is somewhat grim,” Hinton said. “There is no chance any of these will be first languages. But those who are trying to keep them alive are determined they will at least have a future as second languages.”
Krauss doubts many new languages will be born. Latin, for instance, took 2,000 years to evolve into a dozen or so different European languages.