By Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow

Why Do Languages Disappear?

People assume that globalization or colonialism is the main culprit behind the disappearance of languages. But the truth is, any language can disappear. And all languages are threatened.

They always have been.

Linguists debate whether there are presently 6000 or 7000 languages spoken on earth. That would mean there are on average, barely one million speakers per language. In fact, there are only 137 languages in the world that are spoken by more than 5 million people. But there aren’t even a dozen of languages spoken by more than 100 million people.

Most languages are in a dangerous position, and always have been. Most have no written dictionary or written grammar and have never been taught in school.

Believe it or not, some of today’s main international languages were once threatened languages – to the point that the story of the origins remains a bit of a mystery. For example, Spanish, which is the subject of our latest book, The Story of Spanish, was originally the tongue of a remote tribe of shepherds in Northern Spain. French has even more mysterious origins: it began as a sort of made up language that combined different dialects spoken in Northern France.

Colonialism itself does not explain why some languages are eradicated. While the Spanish conquest erased a number of Pre-Columbian languages, some of the dominant languages in the Americas – Nahuatl, Mayan, Guarani, Quechua – are still spoken five centuries later. Some of these even fared better after the Spanish conquest than before, and they began to wane only after the colonial period.

In fact, the real “threats” to languages are usually internal, not external. Speakers of a language may transform it into a variety of dialects that become so distinct they end up turning into separate languages – the way Latin did in the first millennium. According to some linguists, Arabic is in that situation today.

The other internal threat comes from the fact that speakers sometimes simply abandon their mother tongue. Why? Perhaps it doesn’t bring them any advantages, or instead relegates them to harsher living conditions – a lot of regional languages in Spain and in France disappeared that way. There was no threat. The speakers just let their language go.

But in the end, linguists and socio-linguists do not understand exactly why some languages disappear while others, facing similar threats, don’t. Basque, Catalan and Welsh are famous cases of mysteriously resilient tongues.

In 2006, in a panel discussion, Jean-Benoît had an exchange with a Sioux Indian whose language, Lakota, has never been spoken by more than 50 000 people. Inuit is spoken by about 35 000 people in Canada – and that’s probably more speakers than there have ever been. Aramaic – the historical language of Jesus – is often described as a dead language, but 100 000 people still speak it today, or at least a modern version of it.

In short, all languages face threats, but it’s impossible to predict which will survive and which won’t.

The Story of SpanishMore about the sociology of language can be found in our new book, The Story of Spanish (St. Martin’s Press).