We are accustomed to hearing reports that our planet’s animal and plant species are disappearing as a result of human activity, but fewer are aware that languages are also dying out at an worrying rate of approximately one every two weeks.
The demise of languages such as Eyak in Alaska (which died, along with its last speaker, in 2008) and Ubykh in Turkey (which was uttered for the last time in 1992) are usually blamed on economic growth and the desire to achieve it.
A study conducted at the University of Cambridge has found that minority languages in highly developed parts of the world, including North America, Europe and Australia, are most at risk.
Some efforts are being made to save some of the 3,500 languages which are expected to have become extent by the end of the 21st century. Although globalisation is usually blamed, scientists believe that Facebook, YouTube and even texting will be the salvation of some of these endangered tongues.
According to K David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, minor languages are using social media, text messaging and other technologies to expand their voice and presence. He calls it the ‘flipside of globalisation’.
As part of his work for National Geographic, Mr Harrison has helped to produce eight talking dictionaries containing more than 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages. All these recordings feature native speakers, one of whom is Alfred “Bud” Lane, who speaks Siletz Dee-ni, only used in a small area on the central Oregon coast. Mr Lane has recorded 14,000 words for the online dictionary.
What else can be done to reverse this trend? Much lies in the hands of the speakers themselves. As a Torres Straits’ Islander in Australia told Mr Harrison: Our language is standing still, we need to make it relevant to today’s society. We need to create new words, because right now we can’t say ‘computer’.”
Some believe that language revitalisation will be an important trend in coming decades and that this resistance to globalisation will have a deep-reaching effect on human culture, determining the fate of ancient knowledge. While not all languages will survive and many will be lost as their speakers die off, new digital tools do offer a way back from the brink for many which seemed doomed just a few years ago.