On the Death and Life of Languages

25 October 2009 by Andrew Robinson / New Scientist

9780300137330EVERY year, 25 languages die out, on average. The world has perhaps 5000 living languages – though estimates vary – so by the end of this century there will be only half this number. In North America alone, there were between 600 and 700 languages when Columbus landed in 1492. This number had fallen to 213 by 1962, of which only 89 languages had speakers ranging from children to the elderly. Since then at least 50 more have gone extinct. For example, the last native speaker of Cupeño died in 1987 in Pala, California, aged 94.

Claude Hagège, a professor of linguistics at the Collège de France in Paris, has studied this decline for more than three decades. His academic book, On the Death and Life of Languages, which was first published in French in 2000 and has now been translated into English, is a wake-up call, covering languages across the globe, from Cornish to the polyglot brew of Papua New Guinea. Hagège has no doubt that linguistic imperialism is largely responsible for the problem: “The death threat that weighs upon languages today takes the guise of English,” he concludes glumly. “And I wager that the wisest anglophones would not, in fact, wish for a world with only one language.”

However, he also focuses on how a few dying languages, such as Welsh, have been saved by their native-speakers, assisted by governments. The rebirth of Hebrew in Israel receives detailed treatment. Uniquely, Hebrew is a spoken language fabricated from a written language; it has been used by Jewish scholars since biblical times. Modern Hebrew’s messianic proponent, the Zionist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, faced stiff opposition to the plan. A fellow Jew sarcastically told him: “If you only speak a dead language to your children, you will make them idiots!”

Still, it’s amazing to consider that in the early 20th century, German almost supplanted Hebrew among Jews in Palestine, because of its use in technical schools. Einstein, inaugurating the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1923, managed just one sentence in Hebrew, then switched to his native German.

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