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29 October 2014
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Language ecology
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Why should we care?
How do languages die?
Can we change the fate of languages?
What else can we change?

Language Ecology by Philippa Law

Language death
How do languages die?

Of the 6,500 languages in the world, more than half are expected to die within the next century, and many more are declining. It's estimated that two languages die out every month.A language is 'safe' if it has plenty of young speakers, plus the support of the state or states where it's spoken. Languages that are no longer being learnt by children are considered to be 'moribund', or on the brink of extinction. Unless drastic action is taken, these languages will be dead within a generation. Endangered languages are those that are neither safe nor moribund.There are two main ways that languages become extinct. Language death most commonly involves bilingual speakers shifting from using two languages, to just using the socially dominant one. This often happens when the dominant language is more prestigious than the minority one. When people know they'll only get respect or a good job if they speak the dominant language, there's great motivation to dump the language that's holding you back.Eventually parents stop speaking it in the home, to avoid putting their children at a socioeconomic disadvantage. The children grow up knowing little or none of the minority language. Once numbers have declined this far, any remaining speakers are unlikely to be able to keep the language alive. This is what happened to Manx - and what was happening to Welsh before its recent resurgence.It's normal for languages to borrow words from other languages, but in some circumstances, this can get out of control. This is another way for languages to die. A minority language can take so much material - first words, and then grammar - from a dominant language, that eventually you can no longer call them separate.This process relies on the languages being similar to start with, so it's most often seen in creoles which get swallowed back into a parent language. Ulster Scots and Scots are also in this position, as they're becoming more and more diluted by English.It's easy to think of dying and extinct languages as just facts and figures, but behind every one, there are real people. The online Ethnologue database, for example, says of one Syrian language: "The last speaker died in 1998. His daughter knows Mlahsö well, but is nearly deaf and has no one to speak it to (1999)."Further reading:
Language Death by David Crystal

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