Can a language really die?

By Jodie Sutton

A language ‘dies’ usually as the result of cultural assimilation, or the abandonment of one language to instead use a lingua franca, i.e. a common language adopted between speakers of different native tongues. The term ‘extinct language’ describes one that no longer has any speakers (Grenoble & Whaley, 2006:18), and we often use the term ‘dead’ when talking about Ancient Greek or Latin for example, but can a language really die?

Sleeping Languages

David Crystal (2000:19) argues that a language can be declared dead even if the last few native speakers are still alive. “If there are only a few elderly speakers of a language remaining, and they no longer use that language for communication, then the language is effectively dead.

In 2011, a Reddit user was approached to visit to a small town in British Columbia, and document the South Tsimshian (Sgüüx̣s) language with its last remaining speaker. He spent 6 months there, recording around 300 hours’ worth of video and audio with the end goal of making it possible for someone to “wake up” the language when the last speaker passed away.

After the last speaker’s death in 2014, the user stated that “the South Tsimshian language […] is now sleeping.” Sgüüx̣s is now technically extinct, but with its extensive documentation, it can still be heard, studied and even learnt again. This isn’t the case for every language that has ever existed, but with today’s technology, we can potentially preserve ‘sleeping’ languages with the ability to wake them up again in the future.

Recreated Languages

One type of con-lang (constructed language) is one that has been reconstructed or revitalised. Cornish is a good example of a language that has been brought back from the ‘dead’ to become a con-lang. The Cornwall Travel and Tourist Information website recounts how Cornish went from being the common language of Cornwall in 1300, to being extinct by 1900 when the last native speaker died (disputed to be either in 1891 or 1777).

After determination and lots of government investment, around 300 people had managed to recreate Cornish and were speaking it regularly again, (albeit with each individual’s version differing slightly in pronunciation and spelling.) The Telegraph (2015) reports that in 2002, Cornish was officially recognised in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Then in 2015, 12,000 people had signed up to learn Cornish on various courses across the county, putting the Cornish language back on the map.

Language Evolution

Latin is probably the most well-known ‘dead’ language. But McMahon (1994, cited by Eckert, Tanja, et al, 2004) suggested that instead of dying, it has simply undergone “the normal processes of linguistic change,” and evolved.

The older form of a language is completely different and often unintelligible to how we recognise it today. Latin, over a long period of time, morphed and split into modern languages such as Italian, French and Spanish, (as seen on the Proto-Indo-European language tree.) However, Latin is still studied all over the world, and is very much present in science, law and religion. Even without possessing any native speakers, Latin may still be considered alive.

Another example is Old English. It is considered dead, but traces of it still live on today in Modern English. That particular phase of the English language is gone, but over time the grammar, vocabulary and phonology have reshaped into the English we speak today. McMahon (1994, cited by Eckert, Tanja, et al, 2004) describes this process as “not death, but metamorphosis.”

Language is dynamic, always changing and evolving into something new. The language we use today will unlikely be the same in even as little as 10 years’ time.

We now have the ability to study languages that were spoken thousands of years ago, the ability to document languages on the brink of extinction to learn again and the ability to recreate extinct languages altogether. Therefore, can a language ever really be well and truly dead?

References

Cornwall Travel and Tourist Information. Available from: http://www.cornwall-calling.co.uk/cornish-language/language.htm [Accessed 13 February 2018]

Crystal, D. (2000) Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, T., Johann, A., Kanzig, A., Kung, M., Muller, B., Schwald, C., Walder, L., (2004) Is English a ‘killer language’? The globalisation of a code. [online] Available from: https://s3.amazonaws.com/online.fliphtml5.com/gcpz/qcbw/index.html [Accessed 13 February 2018]

Grenoble, L. Whaley, L. (2006) Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harley, N. (2015) Council splashes out to try to stop the Cornish language dying out. Telegraph [online]. 05 November. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/11976596/Council-splashes-out-180000-to-try-to-stop-the-Cornish-language-dying-out.html [Accessed 13 February 2018].

Lynch, J. (Unknown) Proto-Indo-European Language Tree [online] Available from: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/language.html [Accessed 14 February 2018]

Reddit thread. (2014) Available from: https://www.reddit.com/r/linguistics/comments/1t5l5m/an_amazing_woman_has_gone_to_sleep_and_her/ [Accessed 01 February 2018].

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