How a language can go extinct – and how to stop it

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What if you woke up one day to news that the language you were speaking was extinct?  It may sound illogical, but just such a thing happened in February, 2009, when UNESCO deemed Cornish (a Celtic language that’s been in existence since the early Middle Ages) a living language no more.  Although it died out as a native tongue in the late 1700’s, in the early 20th century, a movement began to revive it. Today, Cornish is an officially recognized minority language in the United Kingdom, and numbers at least 300 fluent speakers. Though that’s nothing like the numbers you’d see for, say, English or Spanish, it certainly isn’t “0”.  So why did UNESCO consider it extinct?

According to UNESCO’s guidelines, a language is extinct when its last native speaker died more than fifty years ago, and it’s no longer a language people learn as their native tongue. While this may have been the case for Cornish, its speakers knew it was far from dead.  Many of them use the language in their daily lives, whether teaching or learning it in school, speaking with their families, creating or enjoying literature and music, or even when dealing with local businesses.

Luckily, UNESCO saw reason and rescinded their judgment the following year, dubbing Cornish “critically endangered.”  This is a new category, whose creation was at least partly brought about due to the phenomena of reviving languages, which has been helped a lot in recent decades by mass communication tools like the internet.

While some languages, including Cornish, Latin, and Yiddish, have been preserved over centuries or even millennia by at least a small enclave of speakers, there are, alas a number of languages that really have gone extinct.  These were generally spoken by tribes or ethnic groups that didn’t have much contact with the rest of the world, and, when they did, used another language to communicate.

What about a language like English?  Is it possible for “big languages” to go extinct?  Well, never say never — for one thing, as life constantly teaches us, nothing is permanent.  On the other hand, thanks to a significant native-speaking population and, likely, an even greater population of speakers of English as a foreign language, not to mention our language’s role as a lingua franca for things like pop culture, the internet, aviation, technology, and business, it certainly won’t disappear overnight.

If you do speak or love a language that’s endangered, don’t despair.  Instead, check what’s being done to preserve it, and see how you can help.  Look to the local linguistic community; often, revival efforts spring up out of pride and a feeling of identity.  To get an idea of what you or these groups could accomplish, Cornish revivalists created organizations to preserve and teach the language, and petitioned for it to be recognized by the government, which in turn led to grants to promote it through the arts and educational programs.  They continued to make their voices heard, getting street signs in Cornwall to be printed in both English and Cornish, and Cornish lessons in schools. In April, the Cornish were recognized as a national minority group, which means their culture and language will be funded and promoted even more.

And don’t forget the paradox of globalism.  In many ways, it contributes to the extinction of some languages, but it can also be a powerful weapon against it: One of the ways languages like Yiddish or Latin have been saved is by using the internet, radio, and other outlets to export themselves far beyond areas where native speakers might live.

by Alysa Salzberg

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