We Can’t Stem the Tide of Language Death

By Laura McPhersonOctober 19, 2017

We Can’t Stem the Tide of Language Death
BEFORE THE TURN of the next century, more than half of India’s 780 languages may die out. In this respect, India can be seen as a microcosm of the world, with experts warning that thousands of little-spoken languages are at risk for extinction within the century.

These reports might act as a call to keep teaching these languages to new users and ensure they are passed on to the next generation. But we have to be realistic, too. Without an unlikely transformation in political, socioeconomic, and ethnic conditions, it is naïve to think we can stem the tide of language death.

What we can and must do is document this rapidly diminishing linguistic diversity and archive these astonishing displays of creativity for the future. These cultural materials hold the key to understanding the range of human ingenuity in expression, and ultimately to giving these endangered languages a chance to bounce back, even if slim.

Estimates place the number of world languages currently spoken at around 7,000. Each of these languages is the result of a distinct evolutionary path, an unbroken chain of transmission from one generation to the next from its inception to the current day.

Though human language follows the same general blueprints, whether spoken or signed, in the heart of the Amazon or the bustle of a modern metropolis, every language presents unique variations that can shed light on intellectual evolution. If we only considered European or Asian languages, our understanding of the mind would be deeply skewed.

Beyond their sounds and structure, languages also encode a staggering amount of indigenous knowledge. From ethnobotany to architectural and navigational techniques, this knowledge risks being lost as collateral damage when the language ceases to be spoken and its former speakers move away from traditional lifestyles. Add to all of this the loss of identity when a community loses its language, and we can begin to feel the full scale of the tragedy.

To take an example, I am currently documenting a language called Seenku, spoken by fewer than 15,000 people in the rolling hills of southwestern Burkina Faso in West Africa. Like Chinese, it is a tonal language, meaning the pitch on which a word is pronounced can radically alter its meaning. For instance, tsu can mean “thatch” when pronounced with an extra low pitch, but “hippopotamus” when pronounced with falling pitch. In fact, pitch plays such a huge role in Seenku that it can be “spoken” through music alone, most notably on the traditional xylophone.

At last month’s Eid al-Adha celebrations in Burkina Faso, I witnessed a Seenku speaker approach a xylophone player and hold a conversation, but the musician never once opened his mouth: all communication was through the rapid-fire notes he played on the xylophone. This xylophone language accompanies all cultural activities in the village, including funerals, initiation rites, and even traditional healing, but fewer and fewer people are able to understand it. Young people are increasingly reliant on Jula, a major regional language, which gives them access to the city and all that it entails. Before long, the xylophone language will become simply music, aesthetically pleasing but devoid of the immense knowledge that it has contained for generations.

Language death itself, like species extinction, is nothing new, but globalization and urbanization has sped the process up to unprecedented rates. Dominant regional or national languages like Jula hold the key to socioeconomic success and upward mobility. There is pressure for minorities (whether indigenous or immigrant) to assimilate into the dominant culture. Given the enormous role language plays in social identity, younger generations begin to speak the dominant language more and more in a process called “language shift” that, if left unchecked, can quickly result in the death of the minority language as children cease to learn it.

We can argue that humans are naturally adapted to multilingualism and encourage communities to simply add the dominant language to their roster without losing their traditional language, as many linguists and language activists do. But without creating spaces where knowledge of the language is necessary and valued, loss becomes the most likely scenario.

The key to safeguarding linguistic diversity is not to “save” languages, a phrase I have often heard thrown around. It is to document them before they are gone. For a language like Icelandic, whose decline was recently lamented by former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, centuries of solid written history mean that Icelanders, linguists, anthropologists, and others interested in the language will always have a source to turn to. We will always know what it sounded like, what its structure was, and what its people cared about.

But most endangered languages are unwritten. Without a concerted documentation effort, when their last words are spoken, they will slip away without leaving a trace. So scientists must continue the push toward thorough documentation in the form of hours of audio and video recordings of the language, preferably translated and transcribed. These materials must then be safely archived, preserving a corpus of data that can help answer many scientific questions in the future.

It is meticulous and time-consuming work, and there are more languages at risk of extinction than linguists and funding to do the job. Many endangered languages are spoken in far-flung places, but even setting aside travel costs, thorough documentation requires a hefty supply of notebooks, SD cards, and hard drives, not to mention specialized recording equipment. Raw audio and video of the languages need to be stored in a secure archive, such as the Endangered Language Archive (ELAR) or the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), where it can be accessed online. But these archives also require financial contributions to run. And to be maximally useful for future generations of both scholars and community members, further work is needed: compiling dictionaries, developing a writing system and transcribing the materials, and grammatical analysis, all of which require time and effort on the part of both the community and researchers.

Compared to, say, biomedical research, the costs are negligible, but it is still more than most professional linguists can manage without external funding. Recent years have seen the emergence of different programs dedicated to language documentation, including the NSF Documenting Endangered Languages program or the British-based Endangered Language Documentation Program. But these programs can only make a dent in the number of languages requiring documentation.

Though spoken diversity is sure to continue its decline, through documentation and archiving, records of this intangible cultural heritage will always be preserved. The more thorough the documentation — the more it extends beyond language use to include cultural activities, folklore, indigenous taxonomies, music, and more — the richer the record and the better picture we can paint of these precious slices of human ingenuity.

If anything can save endangered languages, it is these archival materials and written documents. Last year, linguist and language activist Daryl Baldwin received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant for his work resurrecting the native Miami language of Oklahoma from written records like these. Without these archived materials, the language would have been lost forever.

I’m a professional linguist working actively to document minority languages, mostly in West Africa. I do my best to encourage people to take pride in their language and use it as much as possible. It is always worth the effort to revitalize and keep minority languages in use. But many of these communities struggle with poverty and lack of education, and I cannot fault them for a shift toward perceived opportunities in another language, usually a colonial tongue.

In the face of the stunning loss of 4,000 languages or more, recording and archiving become imperative. And we should encourage indigenous communities to take part, as even Facebook messages or voice memos spoken into a smart phone could shine light on communicative practices. The preservation of these materials gives lasting life to the thousands of voices around the world, even as they fall silent.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not of the National Science Foundation, whose Documenting Endangered Languages program funds the author’s work.


Laura McPherson is an assistant professor of Linguistics at Dartmouth College and a 2017 Public Voices Fellow.

LARB Contributor

Laura McPherson is an assistant professor of Linguistics at Dartmouth College and a 2017 Public Voices Fellow. She published the second full grammatical description of a Dogon language, A Grammar of Tommo So (2013), and is currently conducting field work in Burkina Faso.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!