Rebecca Cover is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow in the Linguistics department. Her research focuses on language documentation and description as well as semantics.
What is language endangerment and what causes it?
A language is endangered when it is at risk of ceasing to be spoken. Usually, in such cases, the number of speakers is declining; however, not all small languages are endangered, and even a large language can be endangered if the percentage of community members who speak it goes down. Language endangerment is enormously widespread: Some linguists estimate that 50 percent of the 7,000 or so languages currently spoken in the world are moribund (not being learned by children), while up to 90 percent are endangered in the longer term. Languages are endangered on every inhabited continent, with especially high percentages of moribundity in the US, Canada and Australia.
The many factors that can lead to language endangerment include, but are by no means limited to: Wars, disease and governmental and/or colonial policies (these first three decimated Native American languages); lack of representation in the media and/or the education system; a small number of speakers compared to more dominant regional, national or international languages; and negative language attitudes both within and beyond the community of speakers. People may believe, for instance, that proficiency in a smaller, less prestigious language puts speakers at an economic disadvantage, or that the language is less capable of expressing complex scientific ideas.
Why does language endangerment matter?
Language endangerment matters for a host of reasons. There is, of course, the loss to linguistic science: The fewer languages exist, the less data exists about the full range of the human capacity for language. Every so often linguists find counterexamples to some aspect of linguistic theory from some previously under-studied language, forcing a revision of the theory. Once a language is no longer spoken, even if it is well-documented (which relatively few languages are), the wealth of data that it used to contain vanishes.
But language death matters for reasons beyond the loss of data for linguists. The language people speak, and the way they speak it, encodes and reflects their culture. It expresses the culture’s knowledge about the world they live in, about their beliefs and about their cultural practices, all of which will be lost irrevocably if the language stops being spoken. One’s language also is part of one’s identity — when people stop speaking their language in favor of the dominant language being spoken around them, they very often adopt the dominant culture as well. Some linguists argue — more controversially — that the language one speaks even influences the way one thinks. If this hypothesis of linguistic relativity holds water, then the loss of a language entails the loss of a way of perceiving and understanding the world.
How can linguists save a language?
They can’t — at least, not on their own. Rescuing a language ultimately falls to the community whose language is endangered. That said, linguists can help to preserve a language by engaging in three kinds of work. Language documentation involves amassing and archiving a record of speech in as many genres as possible, e.g., conversations, stories, songs, skits and monologs. The related but distinct endeavor of linguistic description involves collecting data on, and then writing a thorough description of, all the grammatical components of the language — its sound system (phonetics and phonology), how words are formed (morphology), how different types of sentences are constructed (syntax) and how elements combine to express different meanings (semantics). The ideal result is a thorough descriptive grammar of the language. Finally, linguists can lend their expertise to efforts toward language revitalization, which aims to restore a language to a thriving state. While some revitalization projects have achieved impressive results, linguists disagree whether full revitalization is possible and how it can best be achieved.