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Past Tense

The Silent Exodus
Why languages die and why that matters

Ewandro Magalhães

Ewandro Magalhães is a conference interpreter, former chief interpreter in the United Nations system, interpreter trainer, and language technology advocate.
He is a TEDx speaker and the author of three books, including The Language Game.

On Jan. 21, 2008, the body of Mrs. Mary Jones was committed to the earth. She was the last speaker of Eyak, once a traditional language spoken in Alaska. Her language was buried with her.
Southern Tsimshian, a dialect used in Klemtu, British Columbia, met a similar fate. Like Eyak, it survived only as long as the last centenarian who spoke it. With her demise, the language, and the rich cultural heritage it held, was gone. Forever.

Through a Scientific American article released in the early 2000s, I learned from a Harvard-trained researcher, then in his eighties, that languages, like people, die at an alarming rate: every 15 days, on average, one language is lost.

The researcher in question was Michael Krauss, Ph.D., then a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. His greatest legacy to language documentation is his work on Eyak, conducted through much of the 1960s. The language is considered a crucial missing link for historical linguistics, with ties to neighboring Ahtna and even distant Navajo. Eyak was already then among the most endangered of the Alaskan languages.

Eyak encapsulates the essence of the thinking of uniquely Alaskan people. Their way of speaking is the result of millennia of experience in their inhospitable environment. It captures the wisdom of the ages. It points to different ways of seeing, of understanding, our common human experience.

Language is inseparable from cultural identity. When a language dies, part of a community’s history, customs, and values vanish with it. Language is the vessel through which traditions, folklore, and stories are passed down from one generation to the next. Losing a language is akin to losing a large chunk of one’s cultural heritage.

Languages are not just tools for communication. They shape our perception of the world. The death of a language engenders an impoverishment of human thinking through the loss of unique thought patterns and expressions. It limits the diversity of humanity’s incredible collective wisdom.

The loss of languages also impacts scientific knowledge and the pace of innovation. Unless diligently and timely recorded, crucial information about ecosystems, medicinal plants, and traditional practices available only in a given language is lost when it goes.

Powerful tools for building social bonds and fostering a sense of belonging, languages strengthen a community’s social cohesion by offering a common medium of expression and unity. Should the language perish, the community may fragment or change to a point beyond recognition, all for lack of a defining common trait.

Salvage linguistics

Prof. Krauss did much to record all that could be retrieved from Mrs. Jones and other heritage speakers before their passing. In so doing, he helped disseminate the concept of “salvage linguistics.”

Also known as “language revitalization,” salvage linguistics is a field of study that focuses on the documentation, preservation, and retrieval of key elements of endangered or nearly extinct languages.

Successful salvage linguistics attempts often involve close collaboration with the communities where the endangered language is spoken. This approach ensures that the language revitalization efforts align with the community’s needs and goals.

Successful revitalization initiatives must overcome considerable challenges, including shortage of resources, the need for skilled linguists and educators, and the difficulty of reversing language patterns in communities where most speakers have already pivoted to a different dominant language.

Further to documentation, salvage linguists also aims at actual language revitalization efforts that often involve teaching the language to new generations, creating language-learning materials, and supporting community efforts to keep the language alive. The revival of Hebrew in Israel and the efforts to revitalize Maori in New Zealand are often cited as successful examples of salvage linguistics in action.

Language diversion drivers

The distribution of languages across the earth is far from equitable, though. As a matter of fact, there seems to be no discernible pattern behind the relative language diversity in a certain geographical area or country.

How a continental country like Brazil, which is larger than the continental US, speaks only one language — Portuguese — while a small archipelago like Papua New Guinea boasts as many as 850?

Attempts to explain Brazil’s language uniformity are many, though mostly speculative. In 1808, the ruler of Portugal, D. Joao VI, transferred his entire court to Brazil to escape an impending invasion by the mighty French army of Napoleon.

The king’s entourage included nearly 16,000 senior officials, from all branches of government, along with their servants. Rio de Janeiro thus became the official seat of the Portuguese crown until the country’s independence in 1822. That certainly helped disseminate the rulers’ language.

Despite the country’s sheer size, there are few insurmountable geographical obstacles in the Brazilian landscape, which facilitated the job of the Portuguese conquistadors as they ventured inland.

The opposite is true of Papua New Guinea. The country’s rugged terrain, with numerous mountain ranges, creates natural barriers that have historically limited the interaction between different language-speaking communities.

Their colonial history, which also differs drastically from that of Brazil, played a role in shaping the archipelago’s linguistic heritage, too. Over the centuries, various powers have claimed specific regions of the Papua New Guinea, which led to the introduction of European and Asian languages alongside indigenous ones.

Ethnicity also played a role. Papua and New Guinea used to be separate entities, and home to a vast number of distinct ethnic groups scattered throughout the land, each with its own unique culture, traditions and, obviously, languages.

This linguistic diversity is truly remarkable given the country’s relatively small population and geographic size. Many of these languages are spoken by small communities in remote areas, and some are endangered or suppressed due to globalization and the dominance of larger languages.

Killing me softly

Short of becoming extinct, a language can be suppressed and pushed to oblivion even as native speakers trudge the earth. Several reasons explain this change in a language’s relative importance:

1. Globalization

As the world becomes more interconnected through technology, trade, and media, dominant languages such as English, Spanish, and Mandarin gain prominence. This marginalizes smaller languages, making them less practical for daily communication and diminishing their relevance. Not sure about you, but I can’t shake the feeling that I somehow carry part of blame.

2. Economic factors

People often shift to languages that offer greater economic opportunities. If a dominant language is required for education, employment, or access to essential services, people may gradually abandon their native tongues or relegate them to more casual conversations.

3. Migration and urbanization patterns

As people move to urban centers or metropolitan areas where their native language is not widely spoken, they may gradually stop using it in favor of the dominant language. Such displacements can quickly lead to the erosion of linguistic traditions.

4. Outright language suppression

Throughout history, linguistic and cultural assimilation efforts, often driven by political or colonial forces, have led to language suppression. Communities discouraged or even forbidden from speaking their native languages are not unheard of. That, too, can greatly accelerate the process of language obsolescence.

How safe is your language?

While most would agree that Eyak is a very long shot for anybody considering a career in modern localization, and despite the long list of reasons and caveats listed above, linguists can’t help but think of these issues in transactional terms.

When I first read the article on Dr. Krauss’ work, many years ago, I remember sighing in relief at the thought that Eyak was not one of my working languages. With Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and a few other European languages under my belt, I felt as secure as a Roman emperor storming the roads at a time when every one of them led to Rome. Petty, I know. But everyone bear with me, please.

It didn’t take long for my excitement to fade into anxiety, though, as I realized that Nero, Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, and their rich entourage have been long gone, along with Latin, for that matter. And before I knew I was scratching my head thinking whether I should drop everything and go learn another, more promising language.

The problem is that there is no telling which ones will survive. Power shifts have been the one constant trait in human history. Any way you look at it, your language, whatever it is, will probably vanish at some point, too.

Then again, despite the millions currently being invested into large language models, AI, machine translation, and the like, we humans will likely disappear faster than our languages, anyway.

So, in a funny way, despite the linguistic bloodbath, I guess we are all safe.

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