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Missing Words: Half of World's Languages to Die Out by 2100

Missing Words: Half of World's Languages to Die Out by 2100

The chief of a Native American tribe died last year and with her an entire language. She was the last speaker of Eyak, a tribal tongue native to south central Alaska. Sound insignificant? Maybe it is, but with half of the world's 6,192 languages set to become extinct by the century's end, endangered languages are anything but scarce.

Proponents for letting dying languages go say the fewer languages the better — less confusion. But opponents maintain that language provides insight into individual cultures, and to let a language is die is to lose an entire knowledge base.

The documentary The Linguists, which PBS will air Feb. 26, follows two — surprise — linguists as they document four dying languages in Siberia, Bolivia, India, and Arizona and a movement to help indigenous groups reclaim their languages. Language revitalization has proved possible in cases where there's more than one speaker, at least a small group, and community and state support.

Good magazine interviewed the two linguists behind the documentary. To see what they had to say,


Greg Harrison and David Anderson point out that language and identity are intertwined. Language encodes nearly everything people have ever thought and known throughout and about history. Harrison said, "We’re losing this vast knowledge base that might contain the secrets of how we’re supposed to survive and we don’t even know it."


Join The Conversation
Amandaletta Amandaletta 8 years
I know a guy who speaks Latin because he is in med school, in which case Latin is really important to know. I've been working on learning Irish (Gaeilge) for many years now and it is extremely hard to learn but I refuse to give up just because of the small amount of people (esp. in the US) who speak it. I have a little experience in French as well. My boyfriend is learning Japanese so I may try to learn that with him, not sure yet.
Brian-Barker Brian-Barker 8 years
As the "International Year of Languages" comes to an end on 21st February, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign for the protection of endangered languages. The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008. The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September. or
Witchy-Ways Witchy-Ways 8 years
At least there are still a few countries who make an effort to preserve their language (france and to some extend Germany and Austria). It's hard but it's manageable, you just have to be persistent when it comes to evolving the language and not seperating it from the international world of finance and business where you may be forced to speak other languages. I'm proud to be able to speak three languages and a dinstinctive local dialect on top of that, so I can only hope that the monolinguals of our world will realize how much you can gain from it.
janneth janneth 8 years
VEry sad. It's the way of the world.
caryatid caryatid 8 years
if you're the last speaker of a language... that language is probably already dead. i agree that it's sorta sad, but natural.
mafalda_quino mafalda_quino 8 years
Oh and in this text " Post New Comment You are signed in as mafalda_quino. Not you? Log out. Please share your opinion with our community, but make sure it is on topic and follows our Community Rules. We moderate comments and prohibit personal attacks, threats, spam, lewd images, or the promotion of your personal website. Comment* " ..I counted 11 latin words/roots. Yay for not-very-dead languages!
mafalda_quino mafalda_quino 8 years
I speak five languages (english comes 3rd so I'm still not as eloquent as I wish I were!) and studied two 'dead' ones (ancient greek and latin). I find the concept of language and dialects fascinating and as a result I've had many an argument with people who believe that "lolz!!!1!!pwned!11!!wtf?!?!! speak" is just natural evolution. It might be, but I hope it isn't. Having said that, languages merge and evolve and some are left behind, but that's not necessarily a bad thing since we seem to carry concepts and words forward, as anyone who studies law will tell you about latin or anyone who studies medicine will tell you about greek.
Jude-C Jude-C 8 years
Every time I read one of those "English teachers now consider essays written in LOLWUTspeak to be acceptable" articles, I die a little bit inside.
Myst Myst 8 years
damn.. Japanese keyboard. "twice a week in Reading and Language arts".
Myst Myst 8 years
lmao.. the "wut" is one of my biggest pet peeves. I tutor elementary and middle school aged students twice agree in Reading and Language Arts and you'd be surprise how often I see student's paper and see words like spelled like "wut", "bff", "cyl" I'm scared sh*tless to know that these generations of kids will be the ones making decisions for me when I'm in the golden years.
Jude-C Jude-C 8 years
I just pray there never comes a day when the English language devolves to the point where novels are written in LOLWUT language.
UnDave35 UnDave35 8 years
How many languages have died out already. This is a natural order. We don't even speak the same type of "english" that was spoken even 300 years ago.
Jude-C Jude-C 8 years
Good point, Myst. This is extremely sad to me; language is one of my pet causes. I think so much of what's unique and special in any culture isn't just expressed through language, but nurtured through that expression, and I have no desire to see the world's cultures homogenized through a gradual homogenization of language and expression.
Myst Myst 8 years
by Chinese... I mean all of the different Chinese dialects like Cantonese and Mandarin, Shanghainese..etc.
KadBunny KadBunny 8 years
I really do wish we can speakus Latinus like the good old days.. :P Nah I was thinking preserving the actual languages and not just integrating the words into modern language (good grief it's amazing how many English words derive from Latin!! Audio recording and making archives maybe?
Myst Myst 8 years
Sad but not surprise. You'd be surprise at how many English words you hear in Chinese and Japanese, heck even French. It's the way the world work as we become more globalized.
caryatid caryatid 8 years
"I wonder if/how we can preserve languages without necessarily speaking them.." ...Latin anyone? ;)
KadBunny KadBunny 8 years
Sad. I always get overwhelmed trying to imagine what it must have been like to form the first word; it's such an amazing achievement. And now links to the past are dying. I agree with genesis though; it's not practical to learn a language people hardly ever use nowadays (like Latin).. but if I didn't know Tagalog I imagine I'd take it in college. It's in my roots. Thankfully I know it though. But haha even that language is so infused with English and Spanish words I don't really know what the real language is like. At least it's not dead though. :( I wonder if/how we can preserve languages without necessarily speaking them..
vanilla19 vanilla19 8 years
This saddens me so much, language is the key to human history and society. It just shows the negative effects of globalization...
genesisrocks genesisrocks 8 years
Pretty sad but what can you do? People just aren't going to learn a language that's dying. It's not very practical
MarinerMandy MarinerMandy 8 years
I was very close to majoring in linguistics, I find different languages so fascinating. It's sad that they are dying out.
kikidawn kikidawn 8 years
I think this is very sad. I'm Native American - Chickasaw & Choctaw. I am taking Choctaw as my foreign language in college. I've had people tell me that I should take something that would actually "help me" in the long run - like Spanish - I live in OK and plan to teach and eventually work in law. But I would so much rather learn one of the languages of my heritage. And in all actuality Chickasaw and Choctaw are basically two dialects of the same language so I'm learning them both in a way - Fluent speakers of both languages can understand each other. I'm happy and proud that I will know at least some of my family's language. I would love to be fluent and pass it on to my kids... that's my plan anyways! :)
stephley stephley 8 years
I've built quite a collection of possibilities Martini - but I still haven't decided on anything I could stick with long term, so I'm trying to hold to a theme.
MartiniLush MartiniLush 8 years
This is indeed, very interesting! And Steph - I totally missed that that was you!!! Where do you find these avatars of yours???
bellaressa bellaressa 8 years
Interesting new avatar, Step - I didn't recognize you. Very interesting piece. I will be watching this. It is such a loss.
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