In linguistics, language death (also language extinction, linguistic extinction or linguicide, and rarely also glottophagy) occurs when a language loses its last native speaker. Language death is a process that affects speech communities where the level of linguistic competence that speakers possess of a given language variety is decreased, eventually resulting in no native or fluent speakers of the variety. Language death may affect any language idiom, including dialects and languages. Language death should not be confused with language attrition (also called language loss), which describes the loss of proficiency in a language at the individual level.
Language death is typically the final outcome of language shift, and may manifest itself in one of the following ways:
- Gradual language death
- Bottom-to-top language death: when language shift begins in a low-level environment such as the home.
- Top-to-bottom language death: when language shift begins in a high-level environment such as the government.
- Radical language death
- Linguicide (also known as sudden death, language genocide, physical language death, biological language death)
The most common process leading to language death is one in which a community of speakers of one language becomes bilingual with another language, and gradually shifts allegiance to the second language until they cease to use their original, heritage language. This is a process of assimilation which may be voluntary or may be forced upon a population. Speakers of some languages, particularly regional or minority languages, may decide to abandon them based on economic or utilitarian grounds, in favour of languages regarded as having greater utility or prestige. This process is gradual and can occur from either bottom-to-top or top-to-bottom.
A language is often declared to be dead even before the last native speaker of the language has died. If there are only a few elderly speakers of a language remaining, and they no longer use that language for communication, then the language is effectively dead. A language that has reached such a reduced stage of use is generally considered moribund. Once a language is no longer a native language—that is, if no children are being socialised into it as their primary language—the process of transmission is ended and the language itself will not survive past the current generation. This is rarely a sudden event, but a slow process of each generation learning less and less of the language, until its use is relegated to the domain of traditional use, such as in poetry and song. Typically the transmission of the language from adults to children becomes more and more restricted, to the final setting that adults speaking the language will raise children who never acquire fluency. One example of this process reaching its conclusion is that of the Dalmatian language.
Language death can be fast, when the children are taught to avoid their parents' language for reasons such as work opportunities and social status. At other times, minority languages survive much longer, for example when the speakers try to isolate themselves against a majority population. Often, especially historically, governments have tried to promote language death, not wishing to have minority languages.
Consequences on grammar
During language loss—sometimes referred to as obsolescence in the linguistic literature—the language that is being lost generally undergoes changes as speakers make their language more similar to the language that they are shifting to. This process of change has been described by Appel (1983) in two categories, though they are not mutually exclusive. Often speakers replace elements of their own language with something from the language they are shifting toward. Also, if their heritage language has an element that the new language does not, speakers may drop it.
- loss of phonological contrasts;
- changes in word order;
- morphological loss, such as was seen in Scottish Gaelic in East Sutherland, Scotland (Dorian: 1978) as fluent speakers still used the historic plural formation, whereas semi-speakers used simple suffixation or did not include any plural formation at all;
- synthetic morphosyntax may become increasingly analytic;
- syntactic loss (i.e. lexical categories, complex constructions);
- loss of word-formation productivity;
- style loss, such as the loss of ritual speech;
- morphological leveling;
- analogical leveling.
Language revitalization is an attempt to slow or reverse language death. Revitalization programs are ongoing in many languages, and have had varying degrees of success.
The revival of the Hebrew language in Israel is the only example of a language's acquiring new first language speakers after it became extinct in everyday use for an extended period, being used only as a liturgical language. Even in the case of Hebrew, there is a theory that argues that "the Hebrew revivalists who wished to speak pure Hebrew failed. The result is a fascinating and multifaceted Israeli language, which is not only multi-layered but also multi-sourced. The revival of a clinically dead language is unlikely without cross-fertilization from the revivalists' mother tongue(s)."
As a response to English linguistic dominance, de-anglicisation became a matter of national pride in some places and especially in regions that were once under colonial rule, where vestiges of colonial domination are a sensitive subject. Following centuries of English rule in Ireland and English imposition of the English language, an argument for de-anglicization was delivered before the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, 25 November 1892; "When we speak of 'The Necessity for De-Anglicising the Irish Nation', we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English." Language was one of the features of Anglicisation in Ireland: although it never died out and became an official language after independence, Irish had lost its status as the island's principal vernacular to become a minority language during the period of English rule; similarly, in North America indigenous languages have been replaced by those of the colonists.
According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, "language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve wellbeing. There are various ethical, aesthetic and utilitarian benefits of language revival—for example, historical justice, diversity and employability, respectively."
Dead languages and normal language change
Linguists distinguish between language "death" and the process where a language becomes a "dead language" through normal language change, a linguistic phenomenon analogous to pseudoextinction. This happens when a language in the course of its normal development gradually morphs into something that is then recognized as a separate, different language, leaving the old form with no native speakers. Thus, for example, Old English may be regarded as a "dead language" although it changed and developed into Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English.
The process of language change may also involve the splitting up of a language into a family of several daughter languages, leaving the common parent language "dead". This has happened to Latin, which (through Vulgar Latin) eventually developed into the Romance languages, and to Prakrit, which developed into the New Indo-Aryan languages. Such a process is normally not described as "language death", because it involves an unbroken chain of normal transmission of the language from one generation to the next, with only minute changes at every single point in the chain. Thus with regard to Latin, for example, there is no point at which Latin "died"; it evolved in different ways in different geographic areas, and its modern forms are now identified by a plethora of different names such as French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, Galician, Venetian, etc.
Measuring language vitality
Except in case of linguicide, languages do not suddenly become extinct; they become moribund as the community of speakers gradually shifts to using other languages. As speakers shift, there are discernible, if subtle, changes in language behavior. These changes in behavior lead to a change of linguistic vitality in the community. There are a variety of systems that have been proposed for measuring the vitality of a language in a community. One of the earliest is GIDS (Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale) proposed by Joshua Fishman in 1991. A noteworthy publishing milestone in measuring language vitality is an entire issue of Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development devoted to the study of ethnolinguistic vitality, Vol. 32.2, 2011, with several authors presenting their own tools for measuring language vitality. A number of other published works on measuring language vitality have been published, prepared by authors with varying situations and applications in mind. These include works by Arienne Dwyer, Martin Ehala, M. Lynne Landweer, Mark Karan, András Kornai, and Paul Lewis and Gary Simons.
- Classical language
- Cultural genocide
- Cultural hegemony
- Endangered language
- Extinct language
- International auxiliary language
- Language contact
- Language policy
- Language revitalization
- Language shift
- List of last known speakers of languages
- Linguistic discrimination
- Linguistic imperialism
- Linguistic purism
- Linguistic rights
- The Linguists (documentary film)
- Minority language
- Prestige language
- Regional language
- Rosetta Project
- Language Movement
- Anti-Hindi agitations of Tamil Nadu
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- Lost Tongues and the Politics of Language Endangerment
- Languages don't kill languages; speakers do
- Language endangerment: What have pride & prestige got to do with It? (pdf)
- Language birth & death (pdf)
- Globalization & the Myth of Killer Languages: What’s Really Going on? (pdf)
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