Language Endangerment is an Important Issue

A Discussion

Essay, 2011

18 Pages, Grade: Excellent


Table of Content

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Background: Language Endangerment and Language Death
2.1 Potentially Endangered Languages
2.2 Endangered Languages
2.3 Seriously endangered Languages
2.4 Moribund Languages
2.5 Extinct Languages and Dead Languages

3 Discussion

4 Conclusion

Reference List

1 Introduction

‘ Tarn palk ö enim ab uo tund ö’ - Only a handful of people are still able to understand these Livonian words (Viitso: 1990). Reasons why languages such as Livonian are becoming extinct are manifold and the estimated 7000 languages which “are being spoken around the world” (Colls: 2009, p. 1) are expected to rapidly shrink in the upcoming decades. It is obvious that language extinction and language death have reached an exceptional level in recent years and that the forecast for a striking percentage of the world’s dying languages is very high (Hale et al.: 1992). An untold number of languages has already died and the “disappearance of languages continues” (Wurm: 1991, p. 1) constantly. One reason for this loss is the fact that “more and more people switch to one of the dominant languages, especially English, and” (Deterding: 2004, p. 27) in consequence miss out on transmitting their endangered indigenous language to their descendents (Crystal: 2000). The problem of language death has only been discovered in the late 1980's and it is assumed that within this century 50% of the currently spoken languages will become extinct and that another 40% will be endangered so that their extinction is no longer ne avoidable - but only if this trend continues (Krauss: 1992). Although, this estimation might sound very pessimistic it is obvious that a drastic reduction of language diversity is on its way. In these premises, thoughts about how to countervail the reduction of diversity have come up within the last couple of years (Hale et al.: 1992; Bobaljik et al.; 1996; Grenoble and Whaley: 1998) with one possibility being to respond to the dying of languages by extensively documenting endangered languages before they actually become extinct. Considering the extent and the speed in which languages die out the task to document is particularly imperative.

Hence, this work deals with the importance of language endangerment in society, the effects the dying of a language brings and how this development is already being counteracted. What do we actually lose when a language becomes extinct? Is it just the language or is there a lot more involved? The working definition used in this work is, based on the Oxford Paperback Dictionary & Thesaurus (2009), as follows: A language is a historically aroused and developing system of signs and rules that serves a linguistic community as a means of communication.

For the second chapter of this work, which is covering the theory, existing literature on endangered languages, language variation and change as well as language death are examined. The third chapter then deals with the discussion on language endangerment, its consequences on affected language communities and the loss of identity. For this purpose literature on saving languages, language conflict, competition and coexistence is taken into consideration. The work finally concludes with a short review.

2 Theoretical Background: Language Endangerment and Language Death

An endangered language is a language whose number of speakers is so low that it potentially drifts out of use in the not so distant future. An endangered language is considered to be endangered when the number of speakers is so low that in the foreseeable future it very likely to fall into desuetude; it consequently becomes a dead language. Many of the 7000 languages which are still being spoken are threatened with extinction. An optimistic estimation expects that approximately 30% of all languages will disappear in the 21st century; the pessimistic estimation assumes that 90% of the languages will die (Coll: 2009).

Although there is no definite and unified threshold that classifies a language as endangered Moseley (2007) identifies four criteria are being used to classify endangered languages.

- Number of speakers: the overall number of people who are still able to speak the language.
- Age of speakers: the mean age of both, the native and the fluent speakers.
- Language transmission to the younger generation: does the younger generation get to learn the language?
- Language function in the society / community (Tsunoda: 2006).

Nevertheless, this is just one idea of how to categorise and define endangered languages. Researchers such as Krauss (1992), Brenzinger (1994), Fishman (1991) and Craig (1997) used slightly different approaches to classify whether a language is endangered or not (Chelliah and de Reuse: 2011). Stephen Wurm (1998) used a five-level classification which had its focus set on the weaker languages:

2.1 Potentially Endangered Languages

A potentially endangered language is a language with a relatively high number of speakers, which, at least in big parts of their range, is being passed on to the younger generation. However, the language is not an official language of government and it is not present in the educational system and “children are more and more inclined not to use and even not to learn the language” (Brenzinger: 2007, p. 375). It is an economically and socially disadvantaged language which has to stand the pressure of a larger language (Crystal: 2000). Examples for potentially endangered languages are inter alia Kurdish, Belarusian, Quechua, Aymara and Tibetan (Wurm: 2001).

2.2 Endangered Languages

Endangered languages are still being passed on to the younger generation, but this only happens in a small part of the range. Therefore the youngest speakers of a potentially endangered language are young adults. Languages which are endangered are among others Upper Sorbian, Sardinian, Welsh, Maythan (Yucatec Maya), Nahuatl and Aramaic (Wurm: 2001).

2.3 Seriously endangered Languages

If a language is seriously endangered passing on to the younger generation only takes place in exceptions. The very less regrowing speakers command the dominating language significantly better, therefore its youngest speakers are beyond middle-age or middle-aged (Brenzinger: 2007). Languages which are seriously endangered are for example Sater Friesian, Lower Sorbian, Breton, Matlatzinca and Jaqaru (Wurm: 2001).

2.4 Moribund Languages

There are, possibly with the exception of a few half speakers, only older speakers who are still able to speak the language and children do no longer learn moribund languages as a mother-tongue (Whaley: 2003). The number of speakers is so low that the survival of the language is extremely unlikely and the language will probably become extinct in the not so distance future. Moribund affects languages such as Akkala Sámi, Livonian, numerous Indian languages (e.g. Nawat (Pipil), Itzá-Maya) and numerous Australian languages (Janse: 2003).

2.5 Extinct Languages and Dead Languages

Extinct languages do either have no living native speakers or just a single person left who is able to speak the language (Lauder and Ayatrohaédi: 2006). Reasons for the dying of a language can be for example wars, diseases, resettlement, official language policies, rapid economic transformation or enslavement, but the most common reason is the switch to a more dominant language (Wolfram: 2002). The difference between an extinct and a dead language is that people might still be able to speak or understand a dead language, but there is no native speaker as such left (Crystal: 2000). A dead language can be documented and still be taught as a foreign language and in certain contexts it might still be used in written or oral form. Latin for example is a dead language which has no native speakers anymore although there are many people who understand Latin because they have learnt it as a foreign language (Sasse: 1992). With some phonological restrictions it is even possible to ‘reanimate’ a dead language. This happened with Cornish and Iwrit (Hebrew); the latter has become the official language of Israel after it had died 2000 years before (Grenoble and Whaley: 2006).

Another way to distinguish between endangered languages, or more precisely between languages which are about to die, is the typification introduced by Campbell and Muntzel (1989), according to which languages can either ‘suffer’ a sudden language death, a radical language death, a gradual language death, or a bottom-to-top death of language (Wolfram: 2002). All four types of language death will be explained in the following section:

A sudden language death takes place when (nearly) all speakers suddenly die which may be caused by genocide or natural disasters. The last speakers of the language are not bilingual and per definition no obsolescent form of the language (that exhibits the structural features towards the former form of speech) remains (Thomason and Kaufman: 1991).

When a speech community, due to political pressure, over hastily crosses over to another language it is called radical death of a language. The speakers feel compelled to refrain from using the language so that the language becomes extinct within one generation (Dimmendaal: 1992).


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Language Endangerment is an Important Issue
A Discussion
The University of Surrey
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Language Endangerment, Language, Loss, Endangered, Moribund, Extinct, dead, diversity
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B.A. Corinna Colette Vellnagel (Author), 2011, Language Endangerment is an Important Issue, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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