The Disappearance of Languages

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In the world where things are becoming homogeneous and so is language, people should take pride in their native language because if a language disappears, along with it disappears the culture and traditional knowledge associated with it.
Illustration by Kevin Craft

Miss Anne Sullivan had a hard time explaining what ‘love’ meant when it was asked to her by Helen Keller.

It is even difficult for people in love to define what love is.

In an average person’s lexicon, the word ‘love’ means a lot of things – from affection towards someone to just liking chicken nuggets, it could be anything.

However, her cloud analogy was eloquent enough to explain.

English as a language is too vague to interpret.

What if the word ‘love’ were to be explained in ancient Greek?

There are seven different words for ‘love’, henceforth there would have been punctilious definitions for ‘love’. Or else, if English vocabulary had those words, it would have been easier.

Language is the fundamental tool of communication.

Each having its unique style, artistic expression, culture, traditional knowledge, history, and some esprit de corps for its speakers.

Over the centuries and even millennia so as to say, some languages have grown, become popular, evolved and formed and many have died down.

In today’s world some languages have become the mandate for success while many are being forgotten.

In India, if we take for example, the generation-Z is predominantly focusing on English and thus there’s a conundrum where a child going to convent schools is very proficient in English but may be restricted in his vocabulary of his own mother tongue while at the same time a child who might not have acquired very good schooling is speaking multiple dialects of a language and many times multiple vernacular languages but that is not valued because of the demand of the society.

However, India is not unique in this case. 

This is an example of how a language persuades over another language as it has higher stature and is spoken by a superior class and thus learning that uplifts the status.

As a community speaking one language speaks the superior language, they become bilingual but gradually over generations, they lose proficiency in their native language.

The classic example of this would be of the Cornish people in southwest England. If you had met a Cornish person in the 18th century, he would have greeted you with ‘Dydh Da’.

In contrast if you happen to meet a Cornish person today, there’s a high possibility that he would greet you by saying ‘Hello’ and he might not even know that it is ‘Dydh Da’ in his native language.

This has happened over successions where the use of native language has simmered out.

Another example of this is the replacement of Galeic by English in Scotland.

There are multiple tribes in India also who have forgotten their native language. Recently the government has started providing radio aid to the Asur tribe of Jharkhand in India for the revival of their language.

The Asur language is in the list of UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Only 50% of people of Asur tribe are well versed in the language that amounts to 7000 to 8000 people.

Taking initiative: Members of the Asur tribe operating a mobile radio in Jharkhand.  
Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Protection of language should be taken seriously because if we get into those numbers the picture is very gloomy.

Out of the 7000 languages, nearly 50% of those are endangered and top 100 most spoken languages are spoken by 85% of the world’s population and nearly every fortnight, a language gets extinct.

With each language lost, the culture associated with it and the traditional knowledge that it had, vanishes.

In  the modern days the gradual death of language is getting common while in the medieval times  or even early modern times languages were abruptly stopped  in usage.

It was done through conquest and imposition of a language by the ruler.

The examples here would be numerous.

One example of this would be the imposition of German language on the French speaking people of Alsace and Lorraine when the Germans captured those districts.

There is another side in the history of languages. It is the evolution of one language to many different languages and amalgamation of two languages and their artistic expressions.

If we take the case of Sanskrit, it has not really died and has been in use in Pujas and more importantly in computer language and many people have its knowledge and can read, write and speak but unlike a native speaker would do.

Over the centuries it has evolved to form most major languages in the Indian subcontinent.

An example of amalgamation of two languages would be the one of old English and Norman French.

After William the Bastard became the King of England, the Normans were in power and they brought along the Norman French dialect to England and many words in the modern English vocabulary is the contribution of theirs.

For example, if the Anglo-Saxons were ‘unfriendly’ towards the Normans, then the Normans were ‘amicable’ towards the Anglo-Saxons.

If the ‘shirt’ that the Anglo-Saxon ‘bought’ was ‘fair’ then the blouse that the Norman ‘purchased’ was ‘beautiful’.

In the past, efforts have been made for the rejuvenation of languages and one successful effort is of the Israelis to revive Hebrew.

Jewish Immigration to Historical Palestine

When the Jewish settlers arrived in British Palestine, all of them spoke different languages and thus it became difficult for them to communicate and therefore they chose Hebrew to be their lingua franca and thereafter modern Hebrew came into use after 2 millennia. 

In the world where things are becoming homogeneous and so is language, people should take pride in their native language and should be having keen interest in protecting and preserving other languages to preserve their customs, cultures, uniqueness and a different way to look at the world.

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Shahid Sengupta
Shahid Sengupta
3 years ago

This is a 100% fact that we are killing our languages

Jon Aske
Jon Aske
3 years ago

Nice article, if a bit oversimplified from the point of view of a linguist or a historian. Most issues are minor, but I wonder about the claim about “the imposition of German language on the French speaking people of Alsace and Lorraine”. I think it should be mostly the other way round, that French was imposed on German speakers (cf. e.g,.

Elizabeth Abba
Elizabeth Abba
3 years ago

Sayantan very well articulated the importance of native languages and cultures associated with it. Native languages promote sustainable communities.

Sudhanshu Bhusan
Sudhanshu Bhusan
3 years ago

This a thing that is widespread nowadays. To forget one’s own culture in order to learn another culture. This should be stopped.

Moses Mburu
Moses Mburu
3 years ago

Language contains the culture of a population. If it is erased then it will take no time to forget the culture.

Sanjeev Thakur
Sanjeev Thakur
3 years ago

Language is the mother of any culture. It should be preserved and cared upon. Important message and an important article. Well done to you.

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