What is Language Death?

A while back, we covered the sad issue of language death on our blog – a process that is only expected to pick up speed in the coming decades. The one thing we did not explain in the articles, however, is what exactly is meant by language death. So, when people say that 50-90% of languages are expected to die out before the end of the century, what exactly do they mean by that?

The definition of language death

In fact, “language death” is a term used in linguistics with a quite specific definition.

It is sometimes also called “language extinction” and happens when a language loses its last native speaker.

The viability of languages themselves are graded on a scale. The Ethnologue (a very respected source on that sort of thing), uses 13 levels to assess the viability of all of the known languages. Of those 13 levels, two can actually describe language death – Extinct and Dormant. Another four levels describe varying levels of language endangerment.

Extinct and dormant

While it might be confusing, the labels “extinct” and “dormant” both mean that a language is effectively dead. According to the levels, as used by Ethnologue, language is closely tied to personal identity, and so there is a small difference in the meaning of the “dead”-levels.

The label “extinct” applies to those languages which no one no longer associates with their identity. If there is an ethnic group that ties a language to their identity but only uses it for symbolic purposes to remind themselves of said identity, the language is classified as “dormant”.

Take Latin, for example. While it is still used in the Roman Catholic church as a liturgical language and is, as such, technically considered dormant, there are very few people who would consider Latin anything besides a dead language. It is used for mass and by clergy but since there are no native speakers, Latin is very widely considered extinct.

A slippery slope

Before a language gets declared as dead, there are also several levels of endangerment. Sadly, going from endangered to extinct is something that can happen very quickly with languages. Since it only requires one generation of people to not learn it natively, the slope to language death is a steep one. Once a language is not learned by native children, it will only last as long as its last native speaker.

Currently, around 922 languages are classified as dying because the last remaining speakers are not able to pass the language on to children.

Rising from the dead

Once the last native speaker dies, it is nearly impossible to bring a language back from the dead. Hebrew is the only language to have ever successfully gone through such a revival. This was due to Hebrew’s special status as a liturgical language, vast written history, and strong ties to the vibrant Jewish community – attributes not many languages are as lucky to have. Although Cornish (another dead language) is currently in the midst of a renaissance, trying to mimic the feat, its success is yet to be determined.

The biggest reason why most of the languages, which will die out over the next century, will be gone forever is that more than half of the world’s languages remain unwritten. With no written record, there is nothing language revivalists could even theoretically do to bring them back from extinction.

Conclusion – Without children, languages die with their speakers

The future of a language is very much dependant on the number of children who grow up speaking it natively. Sadly, it’s a potentially quick decline from endangerment to language extinction, as research in migrant communities demonstrates. Once a child gets past the age-window where a language can be acquired to a native degree, they are very unlikely to pass that language on to their own children. This leads to the eventual extinction of the language together with its last native speakers. While attempts have been made a language revival, only Hebrew remains a successful example of such a process.