Friday, March 20, 2009

More and More Languages on Verge of Extinction

Earlier this week, people gathered in droves all over the world to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. But most of these people didn’t realize that while they were all jubilantly enjoying green beer and rejoicing in the name of the Irish, the native tongue of Ireland became one day closer to extinction. All over the world, many of the earliest spoken languages, surviving only in small indigenous communities, are fighting a losing battle against more dominant languages. A recent Washington Post article states that by the year 2100, half of the world’s remaining 7,000 languages will vanish.

When Ireland was founded in 1922, about 250,000 people spoke Gaelic, the traditional Irish language, but these days that number has plummeted to around 30,000, writes Kari Lydersen of The Post. Languages die off mostly due to small native groups coming into contact with larger more dominant groups. Elders stop speaking and passing their language down to younger generations due to both voluntary and forced assimilation. Sometimes the languages of indigenous people are forced out by intentional national policies. Other times, indigenous people, wanting to avoid standing out as separate from the majority culture, abandon their own dialects.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has estimated that more than half of the world’s present-day population only communicates in eight different languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Bengali and Portuguese. And more than 3,000 languages today are now spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.

On April 13, The Commonwealth Club will host an event on The Rosetta Project, a global endeavor that aims to amass a free and publicly accessible online archive of all documented human languages. Language is inextricably linked to culture, and as languages die off, many fear that we will also wave good-bye to the customs and fables that give many cultures their unique identities. Though it may seem that The United States is not involved with such loss of identity -- since English is the most dominate language of all -- this country was founded by immigrants, has a majority language fashioned from numerous foreign tongues, and an identity based on the customs and stories of many different cultures. The loss of languages around the world may hit closer to home than we realize.


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