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Why are languages dying?

Today, more than 8 billion people live on our planet. However, as the population grows, the number of languages in active use decreases. Such languages can be called endangered or dying. But first, let’s look at how many languages exist in the world. According to a research centre for linguistic intelligence, there are 7,151 of them, and they are characterised by enormous diversity. However, since languages are alive and dynamic, this number is constantly changing. In a study published in the journal Nature, Australian scientists report that almost 40% of all languages in the world are endangered. They also predict that unless appropriate action is taken to preserve linguistic diversity, the number of dying languages will triple in the next 40 years and we could lose more than 20% of them by the end of the 21st century. These scientists also link their extinction to more than 50 factors, including the development of transport infrastructure, high levels of education and even climate change.


The National Geographic portal reports that one language dies every two weeks with the death of its last speaker. Currently, a third of all the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 active speakers. So, what happens when a language becomes extinct? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) explains it as follows: “The extinction of each language results in the irreversible loss of unique cultural knowledge embedded in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival not just of its speakers, but of countless others as well.”


Languages have died in every era. In ancient times, the main causes of the extinction of languages were catastrophic events that brought about the extinction of an entire language group, or the transition of the population of a certain territory to the language of the people who conquered it. A significant decrease in the number of languages has been observed since the end of the 15th century, i.e., the beginning of modern colonization. The colonization of large territories – whether in Latin America, North America or Siberia – was usually accompanied by the suppression and partial extermination of the local population and their language. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century was another important factor . The decline of linguistic diversity was fully manifested at the end of the 20th century and is related to globalization. The extinction of a language can be gradual, i.e., one that occurs over many generations, or sudden. In that case, the language will disappear within one or two generations.


There are many reasons for the disappearance of languages. They can be political or economic. For example, speakers of a minority language may decide that it is better for their children’s future to learn a language associated with economic success. Thus, from this point of view, it is much more advantageous to master one of the world’s languages, such as English or Spanish. Linguists consider the disappearance of languages to be a natural process caused by historical factors and migration.


An interesting linguistic situation can be observed in contemporary Russia. The category of languages officially recognized by law includes about 150-160 languages of Russian ethnicities belonging to the following language families: Indo-European, Altaic, Finno-Ugric, Caucasian (this is the most numerous family, consisting of about 50 languages). The Paleo-Asiatic languages include the following groups: Kamchatka-Chukotka, Eskimo-Aleut, and Yenisei. Of course, Russian dominates, but some regional languages, such as Tatar, Chechen or Tuvan, also have a good position. However, most of the 150 languages spoken in Russia are endangered. These are mainly the languages of ethnicities in the North, Siberia, the Far East and the Caucasus and usually have only a few dozen speakers. They include Southern and Northern Yukaghir, spoken by the oldest indigenous peoples of north-eastern Siberia. Interestingly, the total number of Yukaghir speakers has been increasing from one census to the next (according to the latest census there are about 1,600 speakers) yet the number of speakers of the Yukaghir family of languages has been decreasing; in fact, two of the four languages belonging to this family are extinct. Another example of a dying language is Ter Sámi, which belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. It is spoken in the east of the Kola Peninsula. According to the 2010 census, there are about 100 ethnic Ter Sámi in the country, but only two people speak Ter Sámi.


What about the dead languages? Some of them have been preserved even after millennia and are still being used today as liturgical languages. These include Coptic, a language of worship among Egyptian Christians, Latin in the Catholic Church and classical Tibetan in Tibetan Buddhism. Also, Church Slavonic, which arose from the dead Old Slavonic, is still being used today as a liturgical language in the Slavic countries that have remained within the sphere of influence of the Orthodox Church. The biggest problem in studying a dead language is its reconstruction, which is usually based on a relatively small sample of texts. These texts, unlike a living language, do not provide a complete set of all word forms and their possible combinations. A special case of the reconstruction of a dead language is the isolation of its components within another language – dead or living (e.g., Curonian elements in Latvian, “pre-Greek” Indo-European elements in Greek). These elements are identified on the basis of comparative-historical isolation of parts that cannot be interpreted according to the established system of linguistic correspondences.

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