“‘Cha nel monney, cha nel monney,’ dooyrt Joe. ‘T’ad feer ghoan’.”
The voice belonged to Ned Maddrell, the very last native speaker of Manx, the Celtic language once spoken on the Isle of Man – the small island located between Britain and Ireland.
Maddrell died in 1974, leaving behind recordings of his fishing anecdotes and daily chat (translation of this snippet: “Are the crabs crawling, Joe? ‘Not much, not much,’ said Joe. ‘They’re very scarce’.”).
Casual, almost banal as they seemed at the time, Mandrell’s utterances are now precious beyond price.
Carefully stored and pored over by phonetics experts, his words are the linguistic equivalent of a gene bank for dead species.
Thousands face extinction
More than 300 languages have already become extinct, and “thousands” more are hurtling down the same road, say Daniel Abrams and Steven Strogatz of New York’s Cornell University.
“Up to 90% of languages are expected to disappear with the current century.”
It is a linguistic loss whose equivalent in biodiversity is the mass extinction 65 million years ago which wiped out innumerable species, including the dinosaurs.
The world has around 6800 languages
306 have become extinct since 1600 (less than 1 per year)
By 2100, according to the Worldwatch Institute, we wil lose between 50% and 90% of the world’s languages
That is, between 3400 and 6120 languages, or as many as one per week will perish
The most authoritative database on languages, ethnologue.com, lists 6809 languages that are spoken in the world today, of which 357 have fewer than 50 speakers.
In the case of Abaga, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands Province, just five people still speak it. That estimate was made in 1994, and Abaga may already have vanished.
Survival of the fittest
If language extinction is acknowledged as one of the greatest threats to human heritage, only now are scientific tools emerging that help to explain how a language erodes and dies, and what can be done to defend it.
Evolutionary biologists are struck by similar patterns between threatened tongues and threatened biodiversity.
A language, like species, can head for oblivion if it is threatened by a powerful invader; if it no longer has a large enough, or young enough, or economically viable population to speak it; and if its habitat is destroyed or displaced by war.
Invasive languages are promoted by national governments as a unifying political force or for bureaucracy; or they are essential for work or economic activity, used in television, the radio or movies; or they are fashionable, especially among the young.
In poor or remote communities, these newcomers work like an insidious virus, able to sicken the local language quickly and put it on its deathbed within two or three generations.
“The present ‘killers’ of languages are English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, Chinese and (Bahasa)Indonesia/Malay,” according to a study written by Margit Waas for the US journal Applied Linguistics Forum.
“About 45% of all the people in the world speak at least one of the five main languages: English, Spanish, Russian, Hindi and Mandarin Chinese. Approximately 100 languages are spoken by 95% of the world’s people, and the remaining thousands by only 5%.”
Decline and fall
Language death can be charted by numbers.
Under this “de-acquisition” process, the entire community initially speaks the native tongue daily. As the invader takes root, the number of only-native speakers falls and the number of bilingual speakers rises.
The key to Welsh’s survivability lies in government help: street signs in Welsh, TV and radio programming, language courses for adults and the compulsory learning of Welsh for all children.
Then comes a tipping point at which the native speakers become a minority with a middle-aged demographic profile. As they age, the language becomes more and more isolated socially, less useful economically and less prestigious, and eventually dies with its last few speakers.
Hauling a language away from the maw of extinction is rare, and the few successes have been in rich countries with the awareness and resources to combat the problem.
Back from the brink
Abrams and Strogatz, in a study published last Thursday in Nature, charted the numbers of speakers of Welsh; of Scottish Gaelic, in the remote region of Sutherland; and of Quechua, the most common surviving indigenous language in Latin America, as spoken in Peru.
The decline in Welsh speakers will bottom out by 2020; Gaelic speakers in Sutherland are less than a tenth of what they were 120 years ago; and Quechua in Peru will be wiped out by 2030, they suggest.
The key to Welsh’s survivability lies in government’s help: street signs in Welsh, TV and radio programming, language courses for adults and the compulsory learning of Welsh for all children up to the age of 16.
In other words, prestige is vital.
“The example of Quebec French demonstrates that language decline can be slowed by strategies such as policy-making, education and advertising, in essence increasing an endangered language’s status,” say Abrams and Strogatz.