Our shrinking language tapestry

The headlong rush of "progress" and "development" has made the world poorer. As whole species of animals and plants are endangered and disappear, the human family, too, is a loser. Not in terms of number, to be sure, which increases without letup. It is the marvelous miscellany of human expression that suffers.

Of the roughly 6,000 languages (plus their dialects) spoken around the world, 3,000 or more are classified as endangered, seriously endangered, or dying. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, this year published an "Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing."

The atlas's editor, Prof. Stephen Wurm of the Australian National University, writes that the death of languages is a very old phenomenon. A few, like Latin and Sanskrit, have been kept alive artificially, but many have left no traces. Some remain undeciphered while others have evolved and given birth to new languages. Our own era, he says, with the upsurge of new means of communication, seems to have created more situations of conflict between the languages of the world than ever before, causing more to disappear at an accelerating pace.

Experts in linguistics consider a language endangered when it is no longer learned by at least 30 percent of a community's children. It is seriously endangered when the youngest speakers have moved to middle age and beyond. It is moribund when only a handful of speakers are left. Five years ago, researchers found the last speaker of Bikya, an African language. In Europe, Livonian – related to Finnish – was registered in Latvia and spoken by only 200 people.

In the United States, 200 or more languages are thought to have been in use before the Europeans arrived. Today, fewer than 150 remain, all endangered, many moribund. Even tongues with many thousands of speakers, such as Navajo, are used by few children, and it is believed that almost half the Navajos do not speak it.

The pressure of English is too great, as has been that of French and English in Canada. In America's lower 48 states, the treatment of native Americans was harsher than in Alaska and Canada, and recent waves of conservatism and "English only" policies have hastened the extinction of native languages. Imperial Russia's surge across Siberia, followed by the heavy Soviet hand in Central Asia, supplanted native languages with Russian.

Natural phenomena have disrupted societies over the centuries but, in the main, the process has been less dramatic. Where more dynamic cultures have moved in on local communities, their traditional idioms may be inadequate, putting them economically and politically at a disadvantage. They tend then increasingly to adopt the speech of the dominant culture.

Language is, obviously, key to a society's identity. Hebrew, which seemed lost, was revived as the tongue of Jewish nationalism and flourishes now, meeting all the semantic needs of science, politics, and the arts. Ethnic consciousness, and the freedom to exercise it, has been bringing back fading idioms as a rebellion of particularity against globalization. The language of Ainu in northern Japan, down to eight elderly speakers in 1980, has reawakened, with strong official support. Maori in New Zealand and Hawaiian on Hawaii have been reborn.

Languages of Central Asia, steamrollered by Russian, are coming back after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The 40 languages of the Caucasus fiercely proclaim ethnic pride. Circassian and Abkhaz, which have the largest number of consonants of any language, sound so alien, says Professor Wurm, that outsiders doubt they are listening to human discourse.

The other side of the coin is the fluctuation of the mega-languages, especially English. This tongue of a small people on an island off the coast of Europe is becoming the world's lingua franca, not by conquest, but by acclamation.

Little more than a century ago, the language of science was German. Today it is English. Well into the 20th century, French was the vehicle of diplomacy. Today it is English, which has become the language of global business and aviation while making inroads into sports, the arts, and even the vernacular of many countries. Even so proud a language as Arabic feels besieged.

The prospect of a homogenized world is depressing. The Inuit languages have many different words for what English can call only "snow." Others encapsulate traditions, myths, and community experience that enrich the tapestry of human life.

Each disappearance diminishes the whole. But there is a remedy: not artificial respiration or intensive care, but the cohabitation of multi-lingualism and the acceptance of others that cushion a world running out of elbow room.

• Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

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