[Radio National Main Page] Radio National

Saturday 23/09/00


Language Death...

Summary:

On this week's LINGUA FRANCA: another chance to hear DAVID CRYSTAL on LANGUAGE DEATH. One of the world's foremost authorities on language, DAVID CRYSTAL is the author of THE CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, and many other titles. LANGUAGE DEATH is the title of DAVID CRYSTAL's new book, published this month, and it was the subject of the LINGUA FRANCA he broadcast last year, when he was in Australia to take part in the Melbourne Writers' Festival.

Details or Transcript:

THEME Jill Kitson: Welcome to Lingua Franca. I'm Jill Kitson. This week: David Crystal on language death. The British language authority, David Crystal, who'll be visiting Australia later this month to take part in the Melbourne Writers' Festival, is the author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, English as a Global Language and many other titles. He's also well-known here and in Britain as a lecturer and broadcaster on language. 'Language death' is the subject of David Crystal's next book. Here he is - from his home in Britain - to talk about it.

David Crystal: Language death. The death of a language. The word has the same kind of reluctant resonance as it has when we talk about the death of a person. And indeed, that's how it should be. For that's how it is. A language dies only when the last person who speaks it dies. One day there; the next, gone. Here's an example of it happening. A linguist called Bruce Connell was doing some field work in Cameroon, West Africa, back in 1995. He found a language called Kasabe, which nobody had studied before. It had just one speaker left, a man called Bogon. Connell didn't have time on that visit to find out very much about the language, so he decided to return to Cameroon a year later to collect some more material. He arrived in mid November, only to learn that Bogon had died on November 5th, taking Kasabe with him. So there we have it: on November 4th, Kasabe existed as one of the world's language; On November 6th it didn't. The event would perhaps have caused a stir in Bogon's village. If you're the last speaker of a language, you're often rather special in the eyes of your community, because of what you know, of what you stand for. You're a living monument to what the community once was. But outside Bogon's village, who knew, or mourned the passing of what he stood for? I didn't notice, nor did you, that there was one less language in the world on that November day. And, if you had known, would you have cared? I think we should all of us care, and care passionately, and in a minute I'll tell you why. But first, we need to appreciate the size of the problem.

There's nothing unusual about a single language dying, you see. Communities have come and gone throughout history, and with them, their language. Hittite, for example, died out when its civilisation disappeared in Old Testament times. That's understandable. But what is happening today, as we move into a new millennium, is extraordinary, judged by the standards of the past. It's language extinction on a massive scale. The figures speak for themselves, even though the totals are a bit vague. Not by any means all the languages in the world have been properly identified and studied, you see. That's part of the problem. But according to the best estimates, there are about 6,000 languages in the world at the moment. And of these, about half, some say more, some say less, are going to die out in the course of the next century. Half. That's 3,000 languages. A century is 1200 months. So that means, on average, there's a language dying out somewhere in the world every two weeks or so. How do we know? Well, in the course of the past two or three decades, linguists all over the world have spent a great deal of time gathering data. There have been some major surveys, and some large language atlases have been published. And when people survey a language, they don't just makes notes about its grammar and vocabulary, and how it's pronounced, they look at the number of people who speak it, and how old they are. Obviously, if they find a language with just a few speakers left, and nobody's bothering to pass that language on to the children, that language is bound to die out soon. And we have to draw the same conclusion if a language has less than 100 speakers. It's not likely to last very long. Well, there are a good 500 languages in the world with less than 100 speakers. There are actually 1500 with less than 1000. There are over 3,000 with less than 10,000 speakers. And nearly 5,000 languages with less than 100,000. Here's a statistic for you: 96% of the world's languages are spoken by just 4% of the people. No wonder so many are in danger. But wait a minute, you might be thinking. Didn't you just say 100,000? Surely a language with 100,000 speakers is safe? Well, not necessarily. It's not going to die out next week or next year; but maybe in a couple of generations. It all depends on the pressures it's under, whether it's at risk from the dominance of another language, for instance. It also depends on the attitudes of the people who speak it: do they care if it lives or dies? Take Breton, in north-east France, spoken by a million people at the beginning of the 20th century, and now down to less than a quarter of that total. Breton could be safe if enough effort is made, the kind of effort that's already helped Welsh to recover its growth. If not, the downward trend will just continue, and it could be gone in 50 years. I'm not being dramatic. It's already happened in recent times, to two other Celtic languages in north-east Europe: Cornish, formerly spoken in Cornwall, and Manx, in the Isle of Man. It doesn't take a language long to disappear, once the spirit to continue with it leaves its community. In fact, the speed of the decline has been one of the main findings of recent linguistic research. Take Aleut, the language of the Aleutian Islands, west of Alaska, surviving mainly in just one village. In 1990 there were 60 speakers left; by 1994 there were just 44, the youngest in their 20s. If that rate of decline continues, Aleut will be gone by 2010.

Why are so many dying? A whole range of reasons, from natural disasters, as when whole communities are wiped out in an earthquake, through different forms of cultural assimilation to, well, genocide. Without a doubt, much of the present crisis stems from the major cultural movements which began 500 years ago, as colonialism spread a small number of dominant languages around the world. Disease was the critical thing. It's thought that there were about 100 million inhabitants of the New World before European contact. Within 300 years, this had reduced to less than 1 million. That's more than died in the two World Wars combined. For the survivors, cultural assimilation was the likely outcome. The point hardly needs to be stressed in Australia, where English has displaced so many Aboriginal languages, but what's sometimes forgotten is that English is by no means the only language which has dominated in this way. In South America, it was Spanish and Portuguese. In northern Asia, it was Russian. Nor was European colonialism the only cause. Arabic has suppressed many languages in northern Africa. And in sub-Saharan Africa, local tribal conflict has always been a critical factor.

Can anything be done? Obviously it's too late to do anything to help many languages, where the speakers are too few or too old, and where the community is too busy just trying to survive to care a hoot about their language. But many languages are not in such a serious position. Often, where languages are seriously endangered, there are things that can be done to give new life to them. The term is revitalisation. A community, once it realises that its language is in danger, can get its act together, and introduce measures which can genuinely revitalise. You've seen it happen in Australia with several Aboriginal languages. And it's happening in other countries too. Everything has to be right, of course, for there to be a likelihood of success. The community itself must want to save its language, that's the absolute first step. The culture of which it's a part must need to have a respect for minority languages. There needs to be funding to enable courses, materials and teachers to be introduced. And in a huge number of cases, there need to be linguists, to get on with the basic task of putting the language down on paper. That's the bottom line, isn't it, getting the language documented, recorded, analysed, written down. There are two reasons for this. The obvious one is educational, the need for literacy. But there's a second reason, and this is all to do with why we should care about dying languages at all.

We should care for the very same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet. We're talking about the intellectual and cultural diversity of the planet now, of course, not its biological diversity. But the issues are the same. Enshrined in a language is the whole of a community's history, and a large part of its cultural identity. The world is a mosaic of visions. To lose even one piece of this mosaic is a loss for all of us. We can learn so much from the visions of others. Sometimes the learning is eminently practical, such as when we discover new medical treatments from the folk medicine practices of an indigenous people. Sometimes it's intellectual, an increase in our awareness of the history of our world, such as when the links between languages tell us something about the movements of early civilisations. And of course, very often we learn something new about language itself, the behaviour that makes us truly human, and without which there would be no radio, no Melbourne Writers' Festival, no talk at all. That's why it is so important to document these languages as quickly as possible. With every language that dies, another precious source of data about the nature of the human language faculty is lost, and don't forget, there are only about 6,000 sources in all. So there are good ecological, social and linguistic reasons why we should care about language death. But nonetheless, not everyone believes we should. There are some pretty deep-rooted myths about. Here's the main one: some people think that the multiplicity of the world's languages is a curse rather than a blessing. Indeed, you'll have heard the phrase 'the curse of Babel', referring to the time when God supposedly punished humanity for its pride by making people speak different languages. Ah, you can hear people say, if only we had just one language in the world, whether English, Esperanto, or whatever, we'd all be better off. There'd be no misunderstanding. It would be a new reign of world peace. That argument sounds very attractive. If only it were so easy. But the fact of the matter is that a monolingual world would not bring peace any more than it comes to monolingual countries today. Quite the contrary. Look at all the really big trouble spots of the world in recent decades: Cambodia, a monolingual country; Vietnam, a monolingual country; Rwanda and Burundi, almost alone in Africa for being monolingual countries. All monolingual countries have had their civil wars. If people want to fight each other, it takes more than a common language to stop them. It's the other way round. If you want to have a peaceful world, one of the first things you have to do is pay attention to people's rights within society, and to their identities as communities, and the chief emblem, or badge of a community is its language. A sensitive police of multilingualism, and a concern for minority languages, these are much more likely to lay the foundation for peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence. Could we save a few thousand languages, just like that? Of course, if the will and funding were available.

So how much would it cost, you must be thinking? Well it's not cheap, when you think of what has to be done: getting linguists into the field, supporting the community with language resources and teachers, getting grammars and dictionaries of the language out, writing materials for use in schools, and all over a period of several years, because it takes time, lots of it, to revitalise an endangered language. Conditions vary so much that it's difficult to generalise, but a figure of $100,000 a year per language can't be far from the truth. If we devoted that amount of effort over three years for each of 3,000 languages, we would be talking about some $900 million. That sounds like a lot. But let's put it in perspective, shall we? It's equivalent to just over one day's OPEC oil revenues, in an average year. One day. Languages are like people, in one way, as I said at the beginning. But in another way they're not like people at all. When people die, they leave signs of their presence in the world, in the form of their dwelling places, burial mounds, and artefacts, in a word, their archaeology. But spoken language leaves no archaeology. It's worth remembering: when a language dies, which has never been written down, it is as if it has never been.

Jill Kitson: David Crystal, soon to be here for the Melbourne Writers' Festival. And that's all for this edition of Lingua Franca.

Publications:

LANGUAGE DEATH Author: DAVID CRYSTAL

Publisher: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Back to main story index.

Saturday at 2.45pm, Repeated Tuesday at 11.45am
Tuning in details ABC Radio Tape Sales information

2000 Australian Broadcasting Corporation © 2001 ABC | Privacy Policy