The Death of a Language

The Death of a Language

How does a language die?  Does it wither away with the times?  Does it disappear because of war?  Is it simply forgotten?  English is the Lingua Franca in the 21st century; however, English has only been solidified as the universal language post World War II.  Language is something that comes and goes with the even flow of the changes in the world.  Mandarin for example has nearly a billion native speakers yet, it is only an official language in China while English is an official language in 54 different countries.  Today it seems as if these languages are only going to keep growing however; history tells us that it could change at any time.

The world today is more connected than it has ever been.  We can talk to virtually anyone at any time in the world.  And, while Mandarin, English and Spanish are continuing to dominate, many languages are receiving the back end of globalization. There are about 6,900 languages known in the world and of those, only about half of them are expected to survive another 50 years.  This is a shame because language is a way to celebrate a culture and differences between people.  As a student of foreign languages, I have always perceived languages and dialects the same way people view foreign food.  It is something that should be shared and enjoyed and available to everyone.  Missing out on the Basque language is just as bad as missing out on Basque cheese, in my humbled opinion.  With that being said, there are very interesting and ancient languages that are in danger of disappearing, here are some of them that you MUST hear before it is too late.

Irish Gaelic:  It is estimated that Irish is spoken by 20,000 to 80,000 people on a daily basis and about 1.2 million people use it in some context whether in their homes or in school.  The first signs of the language date back to the 4th Century AD, far earlier than English.  It based its language off of the Latin alphabet and grammar.  It was a widely spoken language until the 18th century when the English Monarchy limited its teaching in schools and hasn’t recovered since then.  Now-a-days it is still spoken but mainly in rural areas.  In 2007, a television series on Ireland’s TG4 titled No Béarla was created.  It was a show by Manchán Magan, a native Irish speaker, who went around all of Ireland speaking only Irish.  Spoiler alert:  he didn’t have much success.  Ireland recognizes Irish as the first official language of the country and all official signs post the name in Irish and then in English which shows that serious measures are used to preserve the language.  So just sit back, say: “Níl agam ach beagáinín Gaeilge” and listen.

UNESCO states that Irish is “Definitely Endangered”

Here’s one way to hear Irish Gaelic first hand.

Anything other than Mandarin:  It is estimated that there are hundreds of different dialects of the Chinese language and that some of these differences between dialects are similar to the differences between Romance languages.  They have the same roots but very distinct differences in writing, speaking and spelling, much like how French and Spanish have similar roots but are two very distinctly different languages.  Wu, a dialect of the general Chinese language has over 80 million native speakers and even those speakers fear that their days of speaking that language are numbered.  Based on the extremely high amount of native Mandarin speakers, it is safe to say that all Chinese languages , from Wu with 80 million speakers, to Anong which is spoken as a native language by about 800 people, are vulnerable.

UNESCO classifies many Chinese languages from “Vulnerable” to “Critically Endangered”

Here are a few ways to catch the hundreds of dialects in China.

Wajarri:  This is a language that is spoken by about 90 native speakers in Western Australia.  It is one of the Kartu languages spoken by the Indigenous Australians.  There have been many recent efforts to save this language in the past 30 years.  Dictionaries and grammar books have been created and Wajarri was in fact the first Australian Aboriginal language offered in secondary education in Western Australia in 2008.  Despite all of this, there are only 89 native speakers and a Google books and Amazon search showed me that finding the dictionary and grammatical book is not an easy task.

UNESCO classifies Wajarri as “Severely Endangered”

Here are a few ways to get yourself closer to Australia.

Basque:  I saved this one for last because I have found this to be one of the most interesting languages in the world.  Basque country is in northwest Spain and in southwest France whose largest city is Bilbao.  There are about 720,000 native Basque speakers today.  Basque is a language isolate meaning it has no known similarities to any existing languages and its origin is unknown although some think it is an original Indo-European language that dates back to the Stone Age.  What is interesting about Basque is that there is a serious effort to preserve the language.  Many Basque parents opt to have their children taught primarily in Basque opposed to French or Spanish.  Despite the trend, due to a lack of centralized Basque government in France, the language is losing many speakers in France.  In the 1960’s the Basque people formed the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), which means “Basque Homeland and Freedom”, and used violence as a means to win their independence and although it is only an autonomous state of Spain, it has a heavy influence.   Celebrate the difference! You don’t need to be an expert to know that “edalontzi bat ardo gorria, mesedez” Looks nothing like French nor Spanish.

UNESCO classifies Basque as “Vulnerable”

Here are a few ways to get you to Spain, and closer to hearing Basque.

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