Death of a Language

Posted on: 31. März 2009

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.

More on Maori on Wikipedia.


3 Antworten to "Death of a Language"

What an interesting post!

„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.“ There are languages which disappear leaving bearly a trace behind, but there are others, mainly oin the developed world, such as Cornish, which are revived and live a sort of half-life.

The example of Hebrew is an indicator of what can be done when the will exists. An even better example is that of Esperanto, which started life in the mind of one man in 1887 and now has a solid self-perpetuating speaker population scattered over the globe. Esperanto, unlike Maori, Hebrew and even Cornish does not have support of local or national governments. Its survival and continued use depends on a grass-roots movement of ordinary men and women.

Thank you for your comment!

Esperanto is a language that was created for an excess purpose, mainly to represent itself as a new, easily learnable lingua franca. While it is not restricted to locale, it lends itself more easily to speakers of Germanic and Slavic languages, since its structure and vocabulary is largely based around it. The fact that Esperanto is not an official language in any state or country has hurt its spreading, but is of course natural – normally language forms as a means of communication, and people use the language they know best, or feel most comfortable using. Esperanto is only known to a academic elite, namely those that are interested in linguistics or global politics and have researched it. Esperanto is not taught in schools, there are no local Esperanto learning clubs or centers. Also, there are no Esperanto native speakers, since Esperanto is not a native language to begin with.

There may be a lot of positive points in favor of Esperanto being a better language for globalisation purposes, but as I’ve said before, humans rarely make efficient or intelligent decisions when it comes to something as personal and fluid as language. Also, the points I mentioned that make Esperanto less desirable for the general populace hinder its popularity.

Bill Chapman makes an excellent point about Cornish enjoying financial Government support, whereas Esperanto does not.

However Esperanto still thrives in Britain.

If you have a moment you might like to see the website of the 2010 conference for example at

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