Death of a Language
Posted 31. März 2009on:
I recently had a very interesting discussion about language death – Fips of A Mind @ Play stood his ground on the standpoint that language death was possible, especially through language generalization (such as the overimportance of a lingua franca). I argued that languages would diminish in influence, but never die out completely, since from a cultural standpoint a language was far too valuable to actually let it die. However, we have two definitions of death in that argument, which makes it a moot point to discuss until death has been defined.
Fips uses the word death in the context of „not in use anymore“ – you will not find a native speaker, or if you do, he is one of only a handful native speakers left of that language. Languages were originally used as a spoken tool, and therefore any language that is not spoken anymore can be considered dead.
For me, language is more than just a verbal means of communication. I agree that a language that is not used for that purpose anymore is severely diminished in importance, however that does not mean it is eradicated from common knowledge and culture. For me, the death of a language entails the complete destruction of all its components – we forget its history, its grammar, its cultural value – due to it being extremely old, or due to some disaster that wiped out a whole people, or similar happenstances. Languages like Hebrew, that existed as written versions only due to diminishing use, were revived, and other languages, like Latin, are still well-known and culturally important.
One of the most astonishing resurgences of a language has been the native language of the Maori, New Zealand’s aboriginal people. It was almost completely wiped out by the colonization of New Zealand, and only in the 1980s after a series of studies Maori was put onto the endangered languages list and systematically restored. Nowadays, there a two Maori-only TV Channels, and many loanwords have adapted into the general New Zealand dialect of English, showing us that even non-Maori (or pakehas) have partially embraced the culture. Although it will probably never regain its original influence, Maori is not in any immediate danger of „dying out“ anymore.