Some vanished languages: Etruscan (in Antiquity), Gothic (in the Middle Ages) and Wappo (recently)
February 21, so the day after this blog has been published, will be International Mother Language Day. The day has been first announced by UNESCO in 1999. Its purpose is to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. In 2007 the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2008 International Year of Languages and invited “Member States, the United Nations system and all other relevant stakeholders to develop, support and intensify activities aimed at fostering respect for and the promotion and protection of all languages, in particular endangered languages, linguistic diversity and multilingualism” (resolution A/RES/61/266).
That it’s really necessary to take measures to preserve and protect languages became clear to me from an article I recently read in a newspaper. How many languages are there in the world? Well, I think that most people will say something like fifty, or hundred, or maybe 500. Actually there are about 7,000 languages. And how many languages do you think will be there at the end of this century? Not more than half of them, but the most pessimistic estimates say that only 10% will remain. So if I would have asked you in 2117 how many languages there are in the world, and not in 2017, you might have been right. This means that every two weeks a language vanishes.
There are several reasons why this happens. The ethnic group that speaks the language disappears. People prefer to speak another language that has become dominant or they prefer not to teach their children the native language any longer, because speaking the dominant language gives better job opportunities. People are forced to speak another language. And there are certainly other reasons as well why languages die.
If a language were simply a means of communication and not more than that, probably the loss of a language would not be really dramatic. However, it is more than just an instrument. Especially two things are important. Say, you are somewhere abroad on holiday and no one there speaks your language. Then you hear someone who does. I don’t think that you’ll immediately walk to that person and shake hands, but certainly you’ll feel related to him or her in some way. In other words, a language gives you identity, and probably the more so if your language is not one of the world languages which is used as a lingua franca. Your native language is one of the factors that makes who you are and often it happens that someone who has spoken a big part of his or her life a second language, all at once begins to speak the native language again at a sudden dramatic moment like an accident, even if it is only for a short time.
As for the other reason why a language is more than a mere instrument: I think that many people will know that Inuit languages have more words for expressing types of snow than any other language. Or, another example, Dutch, my mother tongue, has more words for describing types of watercourses and canals and uses more nuances in that field than, say, English. These are just two instances that indicate that there is a narrow relationship between a culture and the language used by the bearers of that culture. And not only is it so that word distinctions are often different for different languages. Also grammatical differences may have cultural relevance. This doesn’t mean that there is a one-to-one relationship between language and culture, but that there is a kind of relation is unmistakable.
The relationship between language and culture is especially significant for smaller languages and cultures, I think. And when a certain language has vanished, also the corresponding culture will have vanished, or anyway a relevant part of it. This is important for the bearers of the vanishing cultures but also for everybody else in the world. Since many vanishing languages are only spoken and have no written sources, their disappearance will be for once and for all. Then the world has become a bit poorer. That’s what we see in this globalizing world, where increasingly only a few languages are used. As Cecilia Odé, a Dutch linguist, says it: “If the process of globalization goes on, everything around us will more and more look the same, including languages and cultures. Already long ago everybody has become aware of the importance of biodiversity. Why would the preservation of language diversity be less important?”
I would say it so: Each language is important because it presents a specific view on the world. In this way, it helps show how things can be seen different than we thought from our own language and world view. Therefore languages help our mutual understanding but also our creativity.