by Anthony Woodbury

Today roughly 5,000 to 6,000 languages are spoken in the world, but a century from now, the number will almost certainly fall to the low thousands or even the hundreds. More than ever, communities that were once self-sufficient find themselves under intense pressure to integrate with powerful neighbors, regional forces, or invaders, often leading to the loss of their own languages and even their ethnic identity.

The pressure on languages can be economic, social, cultural, religious, political, military, or any combination of these. The peoples directly affected are minorities almost by definition, yet they are the bearers of most of the linguistic diversity that has developed over the course of human history. They include the tribes of Papua New Guinea, who alone speak as many as 900 languages; the Native peoples of the Americas, who, in ever smaller numbers, still retain 900 or so of their indigenous languages; national and tribal minorities of Africa, Asia, and Oceania, speaking several thousand more languages; and marginalized European peoples such as the Irish, the Frisians, the Provençal, and the Basques.

Linguists argue that language endangerment is an extremely serious problem, one with great humanistic and scientific consequences.

The Consequences of Language Loss

Sociolinguists and anthropological linguists are only now beginning to understand the effects of language loss or shift on communities. The process is complicated, for although it always involves pressure of some kind, the loss itself may be involuntary or voluntary. In either case, it is frequently seen as a loss of social identity or as a symbol of defeat by a colonial power—if not by those abandoning the language, then often by the next generation.

Moreover, the loss is not only a matter of perceived identity. Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language. This ranges from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory, and technical vocabulary, to everyday greetings, leave-takings, conversational styles, humor, ways of speaking to children, and unique terms for habits, behavior, and emotions. When a language is lost, all this must be refashioned in the new language—with different word categories, sounds, and grammatical structures—if it is to be kept at all. Linguists' work in communities when language shift is occurring shows that for the most part such refashioning, even when social identity is maintained, involves abrupt loss of tradition. More often, the cultural forms of the colonial power take over, transmitted often by television.

Some say that language loss is an inevitable consequence of progress and promotes understanding among groups. But this goal can be met by the learning of second and third languages, not by the loss of first languages. As anthropological linguists have shown in a variety of cases, language loss is far more directly a consequence of intolerance for diversity, particularly when practiced by the powerful against the weak.

Language Loss and Linguistics

Linguists are also well aware—and deeply concerned—that the impending loss of linguistic diversity will limit, or even place out of reach, the fundamental goals of linguistics and their contributions to science more broadly. These include the reconstruction of linguistic prehistory around the world, a key component in the unraveling of global human prehistory. They include the formulation and testing of precise theories of how the languages people learn can and cannot differ and what such limitations may reveal about human cognition. And they include the possibility of knowing how infants and young children acquire the range of diverse language structures now known to us. Indeed it is this last goal that has been imperiled first, since nearly half of the world's language are already moribund, that is, are no longer being learned by children.

Beyond studying the phenomenon itself, linguists have taken two main approaches to the problem of language endangerment. One has been to work together with communities around the world wishing to preserve their languages, offering technical and other assistance in programs of language teaching, language maintenance, and even language revival. This is a relatively new endeavor among linguists but has shown striking promise and innovativeness.

The other approach—less optimistic but more directly related to linguists' primary work—has been to document contemporary languages as fully as possible. Effective documentation includes extensive videotape, audiotape, and written records of actual language use, both formal and informal. In addition, to be useful it must include translation of materials into a language of wider communication and analyses of the vocabulary and the grammar, taking the form, respectively, of a reference dictionary and reference grammar.