What Causes the Death of a Language?

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Heritage_Language_LearnerNothing is sadder in the linguistic community than witnessing the death of a language and not being able to do anything about it. Of course, not many people really know that a language can “die” in the first place. I know the first time I ever heard to a language being referred to as “dead” was when I was pondering taking Latin in high school. I asked someone what it meant, for a language to be dead, and they told me it meant that no one speaks it anymore. This, unfortunately, is not what it takes for a language to be considered dead or almost there.

The true definition of a dead language is one that has no native speakers left. There are several different ways that it can happen, but the bottom line is that if there is only one person left who speaks the language as their native tongue and fluently, then the language has died. It doesn’t matter if there are still other members of the community that understand the language or maybe speak a little bit of it. Even if there are elders in the community who refuse to teach their native tongue to the younger generation, the language is doomed as it won’t survive to be passed on to a new generation as a native language.

Languages can die gradually, which is probably the most natural way for it to happen, but many times there are outside influences involving the struggles of a minority community against the majority society in which they live. The death of a language can start in the home, or it can start in some area as high up as the government or aristocracy. Probably the most common cause of language death is when a community that previously only spoke one language starts to speak another one. This is called “language shift”. The community first becomes bilingual, not discarding their native tongue, but soon they start to use the new language more and more, until their native language is no longer used.

Language shift can happen naturally, but many times, probably too often, it’s something that the government in an area has pushed in some way or another, since the languages that are discarded are generally regional or minority languages. Sometimes the community decides that they would be better off if they learned a more socially acceptable or popular language, as its members would then have access to social and economic opportunities otherwise unknown to them. Whatever the reason is, language shift leads to language death, but at least the death is a gradual one.

However, there are ways to keep a language from dying, or to revitalize a dead one. The best example of this is probably what Israel did with Hebrew, taking it from a practically extinct language to one that had a whole new generation of people who spoke it as their native language. With the recovering or revitalization of a language comes the recovering and revitalization of a culture and heritage, so it’s wonderful that people are trying to do something to stop or at least slow the deaths of many endangered languages.
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