Births and Farewells

Language continually proves it is a living thing, with new ways of using language and new dialects being born and old languages even being resuscitated, amidst the decline of other languages.

Two thousand of the languages in use today have never been written down, so when the last speaker dies, the language is lost forever. This is the case with the majority of languages throughout history. Although language death is something common, it seems to have accelerated in the past couple of centuries. Languages can die for many reasons. The most obvious way is if all the speakers of the language die. This happens in cases of genocide or natural disaster. Another is when a language is banned or persecuted. In El Salvador, for example, in 1932 Salvadoran troops killed tens of thousands of largely native peasants to suppress a revolt. Consequently, to avoid persecution because of its association with the insurrection, the native Lenca and Cacaopera languages were abandoned.

But by far the most common is when people choose to stop speaking it: sometimes speaking the language just slowly becomes unfashionable, for either political or cultural reasons. This phenomenon is called language shift.

One of the most gradual illustrations of it has to be the decline in the use of Coptic Egyptian. When Arab Muslims conquered Egypt in the 7th century, most people spoke Coptic, with a lot of Greek speakers too. By the 10th century Greek had completely disappeared from the scene, and Arabic had become the administrative language, or “the language you need to know if you want to get anywhere in life”, to the point where even Coptic scholars (mostly bishops at the time) started writing in Arabic. Coptic remained, nonetheless, the language of the local population, especially outside of Cairo. This continued to be the case until about the 17th century, when Egyptian Arabic overtook it as the majority language. Coptic has continued to decline, both in the country as a whole as well as in ethnically Coptic communities. Today, it has become very difficult to make estimates as to the number of speakers (as first or second or even third language), with figures ranging from one hundred and thirty people to over a million.

An example closer to home would be the use of Latin in Academia. Although we still use it when naming species, we no longer write entire books or papers in the language of the Romans. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, writing in Latin became a symbol an “out of touch” elite, while local, national languages became all the rage. So, Latin became “daft”, while national languages became “hip”, to the point where so few people spoke Latin that writing anything in Latin became almost a guarantee that no one would read it.

For some, their native tongue simply does not suit them. After already switching his writing from Polish to French, the author Joseph Conrad switched again from French to English. And it paid off! He is still one of the most acclaimed English language authors, noted in particular for his novel Heart of Darkness. Or going in the other direction, the playwright Samuel Beckett, after an unsuccessful career in England, started writing in French. Today, he is mandatory reading in most French high school curricula.

Almost as regularly as languages die, new languages are discovered. Imagine a group of anthropologists just strolling around deep in the Australian Bush. Suddenly, they meet a tribe that hasn’t been encountered in fifty years. They knew they were about, but it turns out they are nothing like in the books. They have different customs than described. Their language, which was previously recorded as being a dialect of the language of a neighbouring tribe, is actually completely unrelated. So, after a lot of note-taking and a bit of grumbling about their predecessor’s methodology, the number of languages in the world goes up by one.

Another way to add to the grand tally of languages is by reviving dead ones. Hebrew is probably the most famous example of this. As a spoken language it was abandoned around the 2nd century BC but survived as the religious language of Judaism (similar to Latin in the Catholic Church). However, with rising nationalisms across Europe, the 19th century saw the beginnings of a revival of Hebrew, as it was frequently used in Jewish intellectual communities of the time. By the middle of the 20th century, it had gained enough momentum to become the official language of the newly founded Israel, and after a generation of being taught in schools, it became a healthy language with millions of active speakers, many of them speaking it as their mother tongue.

Most probably inspired by this success, the European Union decided to give the same idea a go, but on a continental scale. So, in the early 90´s, somewhere in an office in Strasbourg, was concocted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML). This has led to a recent revival of many dead or dying languages across Europe, from old local languages such as Cornish in England or Aragonese in Spain, to spoken languages of large minorities, such as Czech and Slovak in Austria or Turkish and Hungarian in Romania.

All of these births, farewells and disappearances show language is very much alive and ever changing. Like life, it spreads, grows, adapts, splinters, and vanishes. But it will always find a way.

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