Speaking in Tongues: Language Diversity, Death and Revival

I’ve always been fascinated with language diversity, with people speaking two or more languages, as well as happily multilingual places — although (or maybe because) the environment I grew up in was pretty monolingual. Or so I thought, but more on that later.

InterNations Expat Blog_Language Diversity_Pic 2My current workplace couldn’t be any more different from my German-only childhood. A brief glance at our team statistics reveals that we are now speaking 28 languages at the InterNations office. As far as linguistic diversity goes, that’s pretty impressive, right?

Wrong. The mere two and a half dozen languages my colleagues and I can scrape together are peanuts, compared to the sheer endless variety of languages worldwide.

7,000 — Or “Only” 5,000? Languages around the Globe

How many languages are there even around the world? As usual, the answer depends on whom you ask. The UNESCO doesn’t give any numbers more precise than “definitely over 5,000”, perhaps up to 6,000. The Ethnologue database claims to identify 7,102 different languages, though the exact number is up to debate.

stack of booksBoth organizations also count regional varieties I’d probably just call “dialects”. Apparently, professional linguists are less strict about that. For Germany, their publications list, among others, the northern Low Saxon (Plattdüütsch) and the southern Austro-Bavarian. In retrospect, the UNESCO has transformed my small-town Bavarian childhood into a bilingual experience. Huh.

Still, even considering the lack of clear-cut boundaries between “dialect” and “language” — a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy — 28 pales in comparison to 5,000 and counting.

The (Linguistically) Most Diverse Place on Earth

Most of the languages you might hear at our office also feature among the global top 100 regarding their number of native speakers: English — 360 million; German — “merely” 89 million; Spanish — a whopping 405 million, etc.

A vast majority of languages are limited to small communities, though. Geographical isolation accounts for both a wide range of dialects and the co-existence of completely different languages.

Let’s take Norway, for instance: very long coastline, some very high mountains, and plenty of very deep fjords. It thus has a whole lot of local dialects, especially for a language with five million native speakers. At the very least, it’s got enough to drive unsuspecting language students to distraction. Trust me on this. Aerial photo of the  coast of New Guinea

However, the difference between Norway’s bergensk and trøndersk is small potatoes when we look at Papua New Guinea. It consists of 600 islands, and the biggest one — the eastern half of New Guinea — is characterized by rugged terrain and dense rainforests.

It’s hardly surprising that PNG is the country with the highest linguistic diversity worldwide: it has over 800 languages, many of them with barely 1,000 speakers. This linguistic diversity has something troublesome in common with the biodiversity of a tropical rainforest: both are increasingly fragile.

The Slow Death of Many Languages

Languages are dying every day. According to the UNESCO, 230 languages have become extinct since 1950. The Ethnologue database even puts that number at 367, around six per year.

Well, that probably sucks if you are a linguist interested in obscure syntax rules — or if you happen to be the last elderly native speaker of Ubykh (+1992), Eyak (+2008), or Livonian (+2013). But why should it matter to the rest of us?

InterNations Expat Blog_Language Diversity_Pic 4Anyway, it’s easier to communicate in the “big” languages, isn’t it? Google Translate proudly announced a couple of days ago that it now features 100 languages, covering 99% of all Internet users. There are also a lot more pressing problems — war, dire poverty, and ecological destruction, to name just a few.

In fact, the gradual death of many languages is often intertwined with other issues. On the most extreme end of the scale, languages die because the people who speak them die in bloody wars or natural disasters.

More often, languages are at risk because people from minority communities — often isolated, discriminated against, or poor — want to improve their lives. They struggle to get an education, move to a bigger town, and find a better job: this may force them to adapt a dominant language no longer their own. If their grandkids still want to speak a less “prestigious” language is anyone’s guess.

What Words Are Worth

There’s even a link between linguistic diversity and biodiversity: after a community and its language die, knowledge about traditional crops or folk remedies may be lost.

Ethnobotanists often rely on indigenous peoples for research, and the history of medicine and pharmaceutics yields some famous examples. The next time you take quinine for antimalarial treatment or just mix yourself a gin and tonic, thank the Kichwa.

Our cultural heritage, too, obviously depends on our languages. Many endangered languages don’t exist in writing. InterNations Expat Blog_Language Diversity_Pic 5 If the ancient Greeks hadn’t cribbed their script from the Phoenicians, nobody might have written down the story of the Trojan War — and we wouldn’t have had to sit through 162 on-screen minutes of Brad Pitt in a leather mini-skirt 3,000 years later.

Once a language dies, a specific way of looking at the world dies with it: the oft-repeated claim that “Eskimo” (Inuit-Yupik-Unangan) languages have 50 words for snow is just an urban legend, though.

But various languages do reveal various subtleties and nuances of expression. For instance, the Tuvan, a nomadic community in Russia, practice the popular Mongolian art of “throat singing”. Their word for it? It translates as “singing with the rhythms of a galloping horse”.

Lastly and simply, the worth of a language is connected to the self-worth of its speakers.

What Is Dead May Never Die

Does language endangerment mean that all fading languages will die? Or that an extinct language remains lost forever? Not necessarily.

The UNESCO stresses in the official statement for the 2016 International Mother Language Day (21 February) how important early language immersion and education are. So-called “nest movements” for minority languages have spread from the Maori of New Zealand to the Hawaiian islands to Native American communities, InterNations Expat Blog_Language Diversity_Pic 6and a similar approach is propagated by activists for endangered European languages like Occitan, Breton, or Cornish.

One of the most spectacular cases is that of Jessie Little Doe Baird, who single-handedly decided to revive the Wampanoag language — spoken in Massachusetts, USA, before the colonists arrived. It died out in the late 1800s, but is very well documented in writing.

Her efforts kick-started the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project — and her own daughter, little Mae Alice, is the first true native speaker in seven generations. Sometimes, the tides of history turn.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

Leave a Reply