The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #16 July / August 2015
Can a Language Die?
by Erik Zidowecki
July / August 2015 | 

Many people involved with languages are concerned about endangered languages. When too few people speak a language natively, that language is at risk of becoming extinct. Once the last speaker of it dies, there is no one left to speak it, and so it no longer exists.

The reasons that languages become endangered is usually due to oppression and domination of the people who speak it, or it may fall into disuse when another, more popular language draws people away from it. Why learn or continue speaking a less used language when everyone else around you is speaking another?

There are numerous projects that exist in various forms which attempt to save these languages. Most of them involve attempts to record all the information about a language that can be gathered, such as the Rosetta Project. Others involve linguists travelling to remote parts of the world and working with the last of the native speakers to map out the language and, when possible, obtain recordings of it.

This book is written in Latin. How can it be dead if people still use it?

But while people will often debate what is to be done about dying languages, how to revive them, or even if we should, we never seem to ask "Can a language actually die?".

Despite the way we like to think of a language as a living organism that can grow, evolve, and in some ways, even reproduce (in the forms of dialects and pidgins), it is really people that are making those things happen, and not the language itself. A language is a set of rules about grammar, syntax, morphology, etc., combined with a vocabulary. When no one is speaking it, all of that still remains, in the same way that when someone isn't using a dish, the dish still exists; it doesn't just vanish in a puff of air.

So why can't a language be brought back to life after it has "died". We can take that dish and use it again, and it still performs its function. If people start actively using a language again, doesn't that make it living?

It seems to me very odd that we tend to view a language as "dead", even while it is being used and taught. I took classes in Latin during my years in High School, and we read stories in it, sang in it, even played games using it. It has literature and a culture, and we have the rules and the vocabulary. The proper pronunciation might be somewhat debated, since no one living has ever heard it pronounced by a native speaker, but that shouldn't be enough to make it unusable.

And indeed, it is still in use. The Vatican uses it in certain situations, people use it during Catholic Mass, and it provides the basis for many of our modern medical, biological and legal terms.

Is a language which is no long spoken dead, or just frozen, like this statue?

So why is it called a "dead language". Is it like some zombie, in which a person has died but has just refused to stop moving? Is it a strange kind of "undead" language? What constitutes life for a language, if not it being used?

I suppose the argument could be made that it needs enough people speaking it as their native language to be truly "alive", but then what does that say about auxiliary languages and pidgins? Neither of those have a huge amount of native speakers. A pidgin language requires a certain number of those before it can become a creole. Yet no one talks about those or an auxiliary like Esperanto being endangered or dead.

How about constructed languages in general? A conlang rarely has more than a few people using it, yet we don't talk about them being endangered. We still define them as languages, even though no one ever speaks them as their native tongue.

So perhaps the question should be "What makes a language alive?". If that can be properly defined, then why can't it be used to bring back these preserved "extinct" language back into existence? What good is preserving them if we never actually use them? That's like breaking a dish then carefully wrapping up all the pieces and placing it a cupboard, never to be used again.

Whether a language should be saved or brought back, if that is possible, is a matter of debate. I want to know what stops us from doing so? Why must what I learned in my Latin classes forever be dismissed as dead?

Then, we can start discussing the making of the linguistical horror film, "Night of the Undead Languages"!

These languages are no longer actively used, but could they be reborn if people started using them again? Coptic (left), Syriac (right), Eteocypriot (below)

Can a Language Die?
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
ralfh: Statue in snow
Jun: Eteocypriot writing
Petey: Stone inscription in Latin (title); Latin book; Day of the Dead skeletons; Coptic liturgic inscription; Syriac book script

Jimmy Mello retains all copyright control over his images. They are used in Parrot Time with his expressed permission.
Maureen Millward retains all copyright control over her images. They are used in Parrot Time with her expressed permission.

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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