Languages face extinction

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Feb 17 13:11:31 UTC 2004

>>From the New Scientist, 16:42 16 February 04 news service.

Half of all languages face extinction this century

Half of all human languages will have disappeared by the end of the
century, as smaller societies are assimilated into national and global
cultures, scientists have warned. Losing this linguistic diversity will be
a blow not only for cultural studies but also for cognitive science, they
say. The only option is to record and catalogue these languages before
they disappear for good, say the researchers, who gathered at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle, Washington, to
issue the warning.

Some 6800 "unique" languages are thought to exist today. But social,
demographic and political factors are all contributing to the rapid
disappearance of many mother tongues. "There are fewer languages than
there were a month or six months ago,"  David Harrison of Swarthmore
College in Pennsylvania, US, says. "Human languages are literally
disappearing as we speak."

Harrison gives the example of the language Middle Chulym, now spoken by
only a handful of Siberian townsfolk, all of whom are all over the age 45.
Integration into Russian society has reduced the need for the language and
once the last fluent speaker has died the language itself will be extinct.

Other worlds

"What is lost when a language is lost is another world," says Stephen
Anderson, of Yale University. He says valuable ethnographic and cultural
information disappears when a language is lost. Harrison adds that each
language lost leaves a gap in our understanding of the variable cognitive
structures of which the human brain is capable.  Studies of different
languages have already revealed vastly different ways of representing and
interpreting the world. Some Native American languages, for example,
reveal a completely different understanding of the nature of time.

But just as many minority languages are dying out, the languages that
dominate the globe, such as Chinese, English and Spanish, are becoming
increasingly varied and complex, says David Lightfoot, a language
researcher at Georgetown University. And new languages may even spring up.
For example, new versions of Chinese are likely to emerge that cannot be
understood by some other Chinese speakers. Nonetheless, Lightfoot stresses
that documenting existing languages is vitally important. "We want to
understand as much as we can about human language," he says. "But to keep
them alive you need a viable community and that's not something that's
really controllable."

Will Knight, Seattle

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