Half of the world's languages are likely to die in the next century. Unless we do something to reverse this trend, we will lose the cultural and linguistic diversity which is so essential to human developmentby David Crystal / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
A language dies only when the last person who speaks it dies. One day it is there; the next, it is gone. Here is how it happens. In late 1995, a linguist, Bruce Connell, was doing some field work in the Mambila region of Cameroon. He found a language called Kasabe, which no westerner had studied before. It had just one speaker left, a man called Bogon. Connell had no time on that visit to find out much about the language, so he decided to return to Cameroon a year later. He arrived in mid-November, only to learn that Bogon had died on 5th November, taking Kasabe with him.
On 4th November, Kasabe existed as one of the world’s languages; on 6th November, it did not. The event might have caused a stir in Bogon’s village. If you are the last speaker of a language, you are often considered special in your community. You are 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 fewer language in the world on that November day. And if you had known, would you have cared?
There is nothing unusual about a single language dying. 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. But what is happening today, as we move into a new millennium, is extraordinary, judged by the standards of the past. It is language extinction on a massive scale.
The figures speak for themselves. Not all the languages in the world have been properly identified and studied, but, according to the best estimates, there are about 6,000 languages in the world at the moment. Of these, about half-some say more, some say less-are going to die out in the course of the next century. The relevant deduction is sobering: 3,000 languages in 1,200 months. This means that, on average, there is a language dying out somewhere in the world every two weeks or so.
How many languages are threatened?