Language Death

When languages disappear

Seminar Paper, 2007

34 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Language death
1.1 Types of language death
1.2 Causes of language shift
1.2.1 Economic influence
1.2.2 Cultural influence
1.2.3 Political influence

2. Linguistic equilibrium and punctuation – Endangered languages under increasing threat
2.1 The Palaeolithic equilibrium
2.2 The Neolithic punctuation and aftershock
2.3 The industrial punctuation
2.4 The extent of endangerment

3. Reasons for action
3.1 Linguistic diversity and sustainable economic development
3.2 Language and identity
3.3 Language and history
3.4 Language and human knowledge
3.5 Languages and linguistic knowledge

1. The Diagnosis
1.1 Levels of endangerment
1.2 The stages of language death
2. Remedies
2.1 Reversing Language Shift (RLS) theory
2.2 Increase of prestige
2.3 Increase of wealth
2.4 The education system
2.5 Literacy
2.6 Increase of legitimate power



1. Language death

1.1 Types of language death

A language dies when nobody speaks it any more. However, there are different ways languages die. In this regard, three types of language death can be identified: population loss, forced shift, and voluntary shift. One must, however, recognize that the divisions between them are not always clear. Many language deaths involve some combination of all three. Besides, there is a considerable grey area between forced and voluntary shift. The distinction between what is forced and what is voluntary is problematic, but the terms are useful as idealized ends of a continuum. (Nettle and Romaine (2000), 92-93)

The first way a language can die is when the people who speak it cease to exist. This is language death by population loss, and it has been very common over the last 500 years. Population loss can occur either by disease or by murder. When the Europeans invaded the Americas, Australia, and the Caribbean they on the one hand murdered the native inhabitants in order to seize their lands and on the other hand unknowingly brought with them lethal epidemic diseases like smallpox to which the indigenous people had no immunity. As whole speech communities died, due to diseases and warfare, numberless languages died with them. (Dixon (1997), 107-108)

In addition to population loss, language death occurs as a result of language shift. There are two types of language shift. The first one is forced language shift. In such cases, dominant groups compel minorities into language shift by either making their language mandatory, by enslaving them, by forcing them into a subordinate position, or by occupying the land and resources on which they rely. The disappearance of tropical rainforest peoples following logging and clearance leading to the destruction of the very basis of their economic and cultural self-sufficiency is an example of forced language shift.

It is important to understand that such policies, which destroy small indigenous languages, are directed at the economic resources available to indigenous people and not policies directed straight at the language. This supports the conviction that language should not be seen in isolation but as one result of a more general ecological and economic matrix. And this, in turn, has important ramifications for language revitalization programs. Without a socioeconomic foundation a language will not thrive. (Dixon (1997), 108-110 and Nettle and Romaine (2000), 90-91 and Aitchison, Jean (1991), 204-208) The second type of language shift is voluntary language shift. This occurs when a community of people comes to believe that they would have better prospects and opportunities when speaking a language other than their mother tongue. The crucial difference from forced shift is that the endangered speech community can still truly decide to stay where they are and who they are, if they want to. The decay of Irish is – with restrictions – an example of voluntary language shift. (Dixon (1997), 110-111 and Nettle and Romaine, 91)

Language shifts are often gradual, with the dominant language replacing the recessive one over a period of decades, or several hundred years. Generally, the endangered language retreats from some situations before others. In this context, it is useful to differentiate between language death “from the top down” and language death “from the bottom up”. In the former, the language disappears from official institutions and public domains like the judiciary system, the church, the economy and politics first, so that it is eventually confined to use in domestic settings. Many European minority languages, like Breton and Gaelic, withdrew in this manner. They both lacked a function in government or religion, areas which were reserved for English (in the case of Gaelic) and French (in the case of Breton), but survived as the home language of the peasantry. In death from the bottom up, a language disappears from everyday use and persists for the most part in ritual or more formal use. An example of bottom up death is Gros Ventres, the language spoken by the Gros Ventres Indians in Blaine County, MT. Although this native American language has not been anybody’s principal language for at least 40 years, it is still used for mainly ceremonial purposes. Another example is spoken Latin in Europe. (Nettle and Romaine (2000), 91-92)

1.2 Causes of language shift

As shown in the preceding chapter, language death can on the one hand occur due to the death of all speakers as a result of warfare, genocide, or epidemic diseases. On the other hand, it can be the result of language shift, a process which is less brutal, but potentially equally devastating for a language. A variety of events describable as culture contact/clash frequently lead to language shift. Broadly speaking, a language shift can occur if a speech community comes into economic, cultural or political contact with another population speaking a different language and being economically stronger and more advanced, culturally aggressive, or politically more powerful. These influences themselves do not lead to the extinction or even major decimation of a community’s language, but they can have substantial effects on the attitude of the community towards its own language resulting in collective doubts about the usefulness of loyalty to their language. (Wurm (1991), 1-5) An uneven distribution of languages in a bi- or multilingual speech community always increases collective bilingualism, because the speakers are forced to learn the dominant language in order to use it in domains where the recessive language cannot be used. This, in turn, increases inference and simplicification leading to lexical loss, but the recessive language still remains a functionally intact language. However, once the decision to abandon the recessive language falls and language transmission comes to be interrupted, the formerly primary language becomes secondary and begins to show serious symptoms of imperfection. Infants no longer receive sufficient input of the recessive language from their environment and this limited exposure to the language is not enough to develop normal language proficiency. At this point, language decay, with its potential result, language death, begins. (Sasse (1992), 13-14)

1.2.1 Economic influence

If culture clash occurs essentially in the economic domain, knowledge of the language of the economically stronger population by members of the economically weaker speech community generally leads to financial advantages, better access to goods, employment, and other economic benefits which are not available to those who lack such a knowledge. The speakers of the economically weaker group begin to realize that their language is becoming less and less useful and this insight makes them have less and less esteem for it. The usual result of this situation is a gradual increase in the use of the language of the economically stronger population, even in situations not directly associated with any economic benefits, eventually leading to a major decrease in the use of the indigenous language. In the end, old people become the only ones to still speak the indigenous language on a regular basis. Their death marks the death of the language, too. Such a development represents the extreme case. It generally arises only if economic influence concurs with severe cultural and political influences, as it has, for instance, been the case in much of Aboriginal Australia and as it is still happening in both Russia and China with a number of small languages. (Wurm (1991), 5)

If a language exerts mainly economic influence, and hardly any cultural or political influence, this seldom results in the total disappearance of the recessive language, although their speakers tend to become bilingual in the language of economic power. An example of such a situation is Swahili in East Africa. Even though the colonial powers in East Africa used Swahili for many aspects of their colonial rule, and Swahili became the national language of what is today Tanzania, the local languages were not given up by their speakers. Rather, bilingualism prevailed and remained the goal of speakers of local languages who are looking for economic amelioration. Another example from colonial times is Tok Pisin. Its knowledge was connected with economic advantages to speakers of local languages, but it was not the language of the culturally or politically dominant group who only used it as a communication device. (Wurm (1991), 6)

1.2.2 Cultural influence

The perhaps most destructive influence on a language, which is often an unwritten language, results from influence upon its speakers by speakers of another language who are culturally more aggressive and mightier. For instance, they may have a written language with a literary tradition, a powerful religion, or be members of a complex civilization with a modern, metropolitan society Strong cultural influence usually results in the loss of much, if not all, of the weaker people’s culture as they adopt much of the dominant people’s culture. This often has far-reaching consequences for the indigenous language. First, the language may die and be superseded by that of the culturally more aggressive people, either fully or in a modified, simplified or pidginized-creolized form of it. Various languages of Australian Aboriginals and native Americans, lacking a writing system, have died, or are dying, this way. An indigenous language with no traditional writing system tends to yield thus to a language of a metropolitan or otherwise aggressive culture which has a writing system. (Wurm (1991), 6-13)

Secondly, the indigenous language may be relegated to unimportant functions or to some special uses. Small minority languages in Russia and China are examples of this. Their younger speakers have become nearly monolingual Russian or Chinese speakers, because of the small size of the minority language speech communities, their location and their limited usefulness in the world of business. These minority languages are increasingly only used by older people and are thus heading towards extinction. (Wurm (1991), 6-13)

Thirdly, the indigenous language may be heavily influenced in its vocabulary and to a certain degree also in its structure by the language of the dominant culture. An example of this is the powerful influence exerted by Arabic, as the language of the Islamic religion and culture, upon the languages of the people who had come under Islamic influence, such as Turkish, Persian, and Swahili. (Wurm (1991), 6-13)

Fourthly, the indigenous language may lose a number of its attributes which are rooted in the traditional culture of its speakers. The limited or total loss of the traditional culture and world view of a people and its substitution by the dominant culture displays itself for instance in the simplification of verb forms denoting concepts rooted in the traditional culture. The traditional Kiwai culture of the Western Province of Papua New Guinea, for example, was characterized by a preoccupation with the diligent indication of the exact number of actors and persons acted upon, the time of an action, and the exact reference to these in the inflectional systems of the language. The Kiwai language contains very complex verb forms in which four numbers of the actor and persons acted upon are variously indicated in a manner progressing from singular versus non-singular first, proceeding to a more precise indication of the non-singular number (i.e. dual, trial, full plural) further on in that verb form. Also, a large range of tenses exists. In the language spoken by the younger generation, however, many of these complex characteristics are hardly used anymore. If they are, they are often incorrectly applied, because with the replacement of traditional Kiwai culture by a new one, the preoccupations have become less important for Kiwai speaker, because the new culture does not value these distinctions. (Wurm (1991), 6-13)

1.2.3 Political influence

Outside political influence may also have profound repercussions on a speech community’s culture and language. Such influence may range from political pressure to conquest. In the latter case, the conquerors may be actively pursuing the acquisition of their language by the speakers of the minority language(s) rather than falling back on economic or cultural influence. An example is the case of the Incas who conquered large parts of western South America and who put the local populations under pressure to adopt their Quechua language. It seems that most speakers of other languages in the area adopted Quechua only unwillingly, because a number of these languages have reappeared after the power of the Incas had been broken by the Spaniards. (Wurm (1991), 13-15)

2. Linguistic equilibrium and punctuation – Endangered languages under increasing threat

2.1 The Palaeolithic equilibrium

For most of human history, it seems likely that the world was close to a linguistic equilibrium, with the amount of languages being lost roughly compensated by the new ones created. The first long identifiable equilibrium was that of the Palaeolithic during which hunters and gatherers lived. This equilibrium lasted upwards of 40,000 years and perhaps longer. The first great linguistic punctuation was the beginning of the Neolithic, marked by the invention of farming, after which an equilibrium was reached in some parts of the globe. The early stages of European colonial expansion were a delayed aftershock of the Neolithic punctuation. The second great punctuation involved the rise of expansionist industrial economies. No prediction can yet be made what equilibrium will be reached after this punctuation. (Nettle and Romaine (2000), 97-98)

Over the Palaeolithic, humans gradually populated the earth. It was the single longest period of human history, at least 50,000 years in Europe, Asian, and Australia, longer in Africa, and 10,000-20,000 years in the Americas. The farming and herding societies of the Neolithic did not appear anywhere until around 10,000 years ago. The probable linguistic diversity of the Palaeolithic can be inferred from ethnographic evidence suggesting that hunter-gatherer societies usually only comprise between a few hundred to a few thousand people, an amount much smaller than the average size of a farming community. There are mainly two reasons for this difference. First, hunter and gatherers use a much greater range of resources than farming communities. Secondly, they react to local resource shortage by mobility. As they grow in number, they overexploit the local resources and recurrently split up and moved into new terrains. (Nettle and Romaine (2000), 101-104 and Nettle (1999), 100-102) As a result of the smaller size of the hunter and gatherer societies, there must have been many more languages relative to the size of the population in the Palaeolithic. The Palaeolithic world population is estimated to have ranged between 5-9 million people.

Assuming the hunter-gatherer society ratio of people to languages the Palaeolithic language diversity must have been between 1,667 and 9,000 languages. Thus, relative to the number of people alive, the amount of languages was much greater than in the Neolithic. In absolute terms, however, estimates suggest that it was about the same as nowadays, namely 6,500. (Nettle (1999), 102)


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Language Death
When languages disappear
University of Trier
Applied Linguistics
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ISBN (eBook)
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Language, Death, Applied, Linguistics
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Viktor Höhn (Author), 2007, Language Death, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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