Language Death

By Patrick O’Neill, Staff Writer

Humanity is encountering, now, more than ever, a mass extinction. Languages disappear on the daily and with them cultural heritage and diverse perspectives are lost. This means that when a language dies the centuries of culture that are built up behind it fade away into nothingness. This is not new, of course, languages have been dying and emerging since humans have existed, but now the rate of language death is unprecedented. According to the Endangered Languages Project over 40% of the world’s estimate 7,000 languages are at risk of dying off. But before we can delve into some of the specifics of Endangered Languages lets talk a bit about an important concept, what is Language Death?

First and foremost, a language dies when it is no longer spoken anymore or no longer has a purpose as a tool of communication. There are four distinct types of Language Death according to one Alghizzi, a professor at an Islamic college in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

First, bottom-to-top language death occurs when a language gradually runs out as a tool of communication and its use becomes confined to things like religion, science, or law. A prime example of this would be Latin. And, as the old rhyme goes, according to my high school Latin teacher: “Latin is a dead language, dead as dead can be, first it killed the Romans and now it’s killing me.”

Next, sudden language death occurs when the native speakers of a language are suddenly wiped out whether by other humans or natural disaster. For instance, in the 19th century the Yahis, Native Americans in California were wiped out by white settlers.

The next type of language death is radical language death which occurs when speakers of a less prestigious language adopt a more dominant language and abandon their native tongue. This has occurred in multiple cases amongst the Native American population when natives felt pressure to speak English and abandon their native languages.

The final type of language death is gradual language death when native speakers slowly abandon their mother tongue, or the mother tongue is slowly dominated by a more prestigious language. This has occurred with many Celtic languages and is still occurring now as English has become the more dominant language in areas like Cornwall where speakers of Cornish continue to die out and the language continues to gradually die.

Stay tuned in the next few weeks for a more specific look at some of the world’s most endangered languages.

For more on The Endangered Language Project visit: