According to some alarming estimates, half of the worlds 7,000 languages will die by the end of this century. English, French, and Arabic probably wont be among them. Some people try to save the endangered languages by writing grammars and dictionaries and encouraging their use among schoolchildren, or by videotaping the few remaining speakers on the off chance that future generations will want to revive the lost tongue.
Others take the fatalistic view that language loss, like forest fires, is nature’s way of clearing out the deadwood and encouraging new growth. Forget Smokey the Bear, the Forest Service now tells us, let the forests burn (so long as not too many expensive homes are in the way). And since speakers of a language have made the choice to switch to something else, let the abandoned languages die (the choice to switch may not have been voluntary, but force, after all, is a natural phenomenon, just like indifference). Language death becomes just another example of survival of the fittest: as in war, the nation or the language that prevails must be holier, stronger, or just a whole lot luckier than the loser. Plus speakers of the winning language get to write the history of the war.
Language death may signal the closing of one door or the opening of another, but the linguist David Harrison is now warning that a lack of linguistic diversity doesn’t just reduce our cultural options, it also poses a direct threat to our planet’s biodiversity. Harrison recently told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that just as endangered species signal environmental loss, the languages of disappearing ethnic groups contain vitally important information about species often unknown to western science.
In Harrison’s view, if a language dies, the knowledge that it contains about natural phenomena will vanish as well. And he’s not optimistic that today’s languages can take up the slack. Times reporter Ben MacIntyre romanticizes Harrison's findings on one language on the edge of extinction: “The tiny community of Chulym people, who live in central Siberia, roughly 2,000 miles from Moscow, speak a language that has evolved from the harsh environment, based on hunting and gathering, plants, animal behaviour, weather and the planets. Modern languages long ago lost this organic fecundity.” Which is another way of saying that, if any speakers of English or Russian manage to survive either global warming or nuclear winter, their languages, made soft by a life of cheeseburgers, caviar, and a dependence on the silicon chip, may have trouble adapting to their new, harsh environment.
According to one pessimistic estimate, a language dies every fortnight, and if Harrison is right, so do many untapped secrets of the universe, everything from love potions and hexes to miraculous folk-cures for cancer and the heartbreak of psoriasis. But instead of cultivating endangered languages or recording them for posterity before they pass on, in countries all around the globe the speakers of majority languages would rather devote their resources and energy to protecting their already well-fortified languages from attack.
Take the case of English, which is spoken as a first language by more than 309 million people on this planet, while several hundred million more use it as a second or third language. As English fast approaches the billion-speaker mark, two more American states, Idaho and Kansas, want to make English their official language to defend it against the few nonanglophones who are left. On top of that, the County Commissioners in Beaufort, North Carolina, have ordered all foreign-language signs under their control to be removed (it’s not clear whether the county name, Beaufort, which is French, will be stricken from the local signage as well). And in England, a Commission established after the London subway bombings wants to bar the spouses of immigrants from entering the U.K. until they pass an English test (a test that until fairly recently would have been failed by most of England’s monarchs or their spouses).
It’s not just English that’s under siege from imaginary foes. French, the former world language with close to 65 million speakers worldwide, continues to enact protectionist legislation while predicting its own imminent extinction. And a meeting sponsored by the Arab League has warned that Arabic, a language with 260 million speakers, is being seriously weakened by foreign words and could die out any minute unless laws are passed to protect it.
Truly endangered languages – those with mere handfuls of speakers instead of millions – continue to disappear, sometimes without a trace, and not-so-endangered languages try to figure out how to get by in the face of juggernauts like English, French, and Arabic. In contrast, the defenders of widely-spoken languages posture and pass unnecessary and ineffective laws. The Arab League is calling for an end to “language pollution” in advertising and popular slang, while the government of Québec is busy measuring signs to make sure that the French words are twice as large as those in any other language. And Beaufort, North Carolina, is placing signs in all the county offices asking, “Will the last speaker of English please turn out the lights?” Needless to say, Beaufort is going to have one large electric bill.