The Life and Death of Language


Language is the medium through which we express and communicate our thoughts to others. Some people say you are not born into a culture but into a language, which is understandable since language is the guardian of culture. Different languages allow people to express certain thoughts and feelings that could be absent in others. Not all words have equivalents in other languages, which shows how language can be very culture specific, and can speak of a particular experience that only a certain number of people went through.

History has shown us that the languages of powerful groups spread across different lands, while the language of groups who are not as dominant has extinct over the centuries. This can happen through different processes: people may decide to use the language of the powerful in an attempt to gain more prestige when they do, or it could be that there is an official policy that requires citizens to speak a certain language, regardless of their cultural affiliations.

For example, in bilingual areas, a native tongue is usually abandoned for the politically or economically dominant language. This occurs because people view the dominant language as an agent to social betterment. What happens next is that parents start to neglect to actively pass on their linguistic heritage to their children, allowing the dominant language to quickly become the mother tongue of the next generations. As a result, the native languages die out, since it has no speakers.

A language’s survival is dependent on people’s attitudes towards it. Linguists say that around 8000 BCE there were more than 20,000 languages; in 2012, that number has become 6,909. Linguists also predict that in ten years’ time half of the existing languages will vanish; but, how is it that languages are disappearing left, right, and center?

Some people believe that the cause of the death of languages nowadays is globalization. In search of finding a common language that can be used for commercialism, native tongues are being abandoned. For example, when a woman from Kenya and a woman from the Netherlands do business they will most probably conduct their transaction in English, since it is the dominant language on a global level.

However, globalization is not the absolute cause of languages dying; when each woman returns to her respective country, they will revert to talking in their native tongues. So we can see that globalization strengthens the position of dominant languages, but does not necessarily cause people to abandon their native tongues. It might be said that it gives people a stronger reason to become bilingual.

Another reason could be the process of interaction between nations and the integration that occurs due to migratory patterns. It is said to have a negative effect on the diversity of languages that exist.

When a family immigrates, the parents will speak both the mother tongue and the language of the country they immigrated to. If they neglect to pass on their mother tongue to their children, then they will grow up only speaking the language of the country they now call home, spelling the death of the native language in that particular family. However, since people still live back in the mother country, they will continue to preserve the language.

One of the recent language deaths that made the news was in 2010. Bo—the language of an indigenous tribe from India’s Andaman Islands that is thought to have existed for 65,000 years—has died with the passing away of its last member, Boa Senior.

Boa Senior. Source:

You can also listen to the last recording of singing in Bo language:

Even though the Bo language has been closely studied by researchers of linguistic history, Boa Senior spent the last few years of her life unable to converse with anyone in her mother tongue.

The Bo tribe is one among ten distinct Great Andamanese tribes that numbered around 5000 people during the time of the British colonization of the Islands. These Islands are part of the Indian Territory, but are far off in the Ocean; before colonization they were more or less isolated.

It is believed that the indigenous tribes of the Islands can be traced to the migrations that occurred out of Africa thousands and thousands of years ago, and the languages spoken are believed to have originated from Africa as well.

When the British colonized these Islands in 1858, many of the Andamanese people passed away because they were exposed to diseases that their immune system could not deal with. This unfortunate occurrence decreased their number from 5000 to 52, those who are thought to have survived until now.

From the numerous languages that existed, only speakers of the Jeru and Sare ancient languages remain, and they have not been transferred to younger generations, meaning that they too will die out.

Not all existing languages have a written form; most of the languages that are in danger of extinction are those that have a rich oral culture, where histories, songs, as well as stories are passed from the older generation to the younger one orally. If these languages disappear, so will the oral knowledge preserved within them as they do not have a written form that facilitates documentation.

For example, although Latin is no longer used, it is a dead language not an extinct one because it is preserved in written form. When a language goes extinct, an entire culture disappears with it; what we as humans amass of knowledge is encoded in the language we use.

Indigenous groups who lived in close proximity with nature and observed the ecosystems closely, gained many insights that are preserved in their languages. Unfortunately, once these groups of people die out leaving behind no written record, the knowledge they gathered dies with them as well.

This was the fate of many indigenous groups; therefore, the study of indigenous languages has many benefits, since one will gain a greater understanding of the local environment, which can help in conservation efforts.

So, what is being done to combat the phenomenon of dying languages? Well, National Geographic started a project called “Enduring Voices”, which it conducts in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. It strives to preserve endangered languages by identifying language hotspots—the places on our planet with the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages—and documenting those languages and the cultures within them.

As we have seen, languages can be dominant or dying. An alternative way to classify them is to define the stage at which a language is: “safe”, “endangered”, or “moribund”. This method was devised by linguist Michael E. Krauss.

If a language is “safe”, children will probably be speaking it in a hundred years. However, if the language is “endangered”, then children will probably not be speaking it in a hundred years; approximately 60–80% of languages fall into this category. Finally, if a language is “moribund”, then children are not speaking it now.

So far, we know how languages die, but are there any languages being born? Well, yes! To better understand born languages, you should be familiar with the “pidgins” and “creoles”.

Pidgins are languages that form when two people speaking two different languages come into contact with each other. They form a hybrid language using their own language to communicate, and this is not the mother tongue of anyone. Once children acquire a pidgin as their mother tongue, it becomes a Creole.

Other born languages are neither pidgins nor creoles, but entirely new ones. Light Warlpiri has recently been born; it is a language created by children living in a remote village in Northern Australia. It is a mixed language using Warlpiri, Kriol, and Standard Australian English as its source languages.

It is spoken in the Lajamanu community, mostly by people under the age of 35. As of 2013, there were 350 native speakers of Light Warlpiri; it was first documented by linguist Carmel O’Shannessy of the University of Michigan. O’Shannessy has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade, and has come to the conclusion that they speak a new language with unique grammatical rules.

What is interesting is that “Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, is that she has been able to record and document a “new” language in the very early period of its existence,” said Mary Laughren, University of Queensland in Australia.

O’Shannessy explains that the development of the language was a two-step process, when parents started using babytalk with their children in a combination of the three languages—Kriol, English, Strong Warlpiri. What happened next was that the children considered that language as their native tongue by adding radical innovations and changes to the syntax.

This language is different to others, to the extent that sometimes the elders do not understand what the youngsters say. Dr. O’Shannessy believes that a new language developed not out of necessity, but because it became an identity marker to the children. It made them who they are and showed that they were young Warlpiri from the Lajamanu Community.

Human beings cannot function without a language, since communication is one of the fundamentals in our lives. The study of how languages develop offers us great insights into what it means to be human, and by working to preserve dying languages we can ensure that the knowledge encompassed within them is not lost, and that future generations can still benefit from the knowledge of their ancestors.


This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Winter 2014 issue.

Image by pikisuperstar on Freepik

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