Engines of Our Ingenuity


by Richard Armstrong

Today, we talk about language death. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What do the majority of languages in the world have in common? They are dying. Historically speaking, the vast majority of human languages are already dead. It's hard to come up with exact numbers, but linguists have estimated something like 31,000 languages have existed in human history (and that's the lowest estimate). Currently, there are roughly six thousand languages spoken in the world. We don't know exactly, because we're just beginning to classify some languages in remote locations. But using conservative figures, something like 81% of all human languages have become extinct.

What worries linguists, however, is the current rate of language death in the world. Over half the languages spoken today have fewer than 10,000 speakers; that's about like the population of Wasilla, Alaska. Around 82% of languages have fewer speakers than there are people in Waco, Texas. Linguists estimate that at least half the world's languages will become extinct in the next one hundred years. That means, on average, a language is dying about every two weeks.

Of course, it's not language that's dying out, but rather specific languages, many of them lacking a standard written form. Historically, much of the world's population has converged around a small number of widely circulated tongues. The nine most spoken are Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. 96% of human beings speak one of the major convergent languages. You might think that's a good thing: instead of a Babel of unintelligible idioms, we are standardizing our communication around the historical "winners" in the language game. These are "proper languages" with dictionaries, grammar books, modern media, scientific vocabularies and libraries full of literature.

But some linguists warn that the loss of linguistic diversity is akin to the loss of biodiversity. Just as agricultural convergence around a small number of plant species can be bad for health and evolution, so too can linguistic "monocultures" impoverish our mental evolution. In fact, the linguistic diversity argument closely parallels biodiversity arguments, since many of the endangered languages are in third world countries also known for their vast biological treasures. So rich are Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in human micro-cultures that combined they speak a quarter of the world's languages.

Linguists warn the death of a language means the loss of a dense cultural heritage, not to mention the passing away of a distinct human identity. Many of today's endangered languages arose amid intense interaction with the natural environment, and house myriad details about animal behavior, plants and traditional medicine. The fear is the rate of language loss is currently so great we may undergo a mass cultural extinction without realizing it. If language is the greatest human invention, how much of it can we afford to lose?

I'm Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we are interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

D. Crystal, Language Death. (Cambridge UP, 2000, 9th printing, 2010).

For a debate on the alarmist rhetoric of appeals to preserve languages, see in particular: J. H. Hill, "'Expert Rhetorics' in Advocacy for Endangered Languages: Who is Listening, and What Do They Hear?" Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 12(2):119-133; and N. C. England, "Commentary: Further Rhetorical Concerns," Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 12(2):141-143.

For UNESCO's site on endangered languages, Click Here. This UNESCO Atlas is also useful:

Ethnologue is an encyclopedia cataloguing the world's known languages, and currently totals 6,909 living languages. The web version can be found here. Image below is clip art.

Lost Language
New Testament fragment in the extinct Gothic language, from the 4th C AD, courtesy of Wikimedia. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_language for more information

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.