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Communications Science

The World's Languages Are Fast Becoming Extinct 939

Posted by kdawson
from the culture-drain dept.
Ant sends news of a report, released a couple of weeks back by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon, on the alarming rate of extinction of the world's languages. While half of all languages have gone extinct in the last 500 years, the half-life is dropping: half of the 7,000 languages spoken today won't exist by the year 2100. The NY Times adds this perspective: "83 languages with 'global' influence are spoken and written by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the others face extinction at a rate, the researchers said, that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants."
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The World's Languages Are Fast Becoming Extinct

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  • by ZiakII (829432) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:08AM (#20806335)
    I for one welcome our new Chinese/English speaking overlords.....its the first step to having Firefly back on TV.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:19AM (#20806423)
      What will happen to the grammatical, pronunciation, and spelling differences between British English and American English (as well as others)?

      For example, British English uses collective nouns (Microsoft are instead of Microsoft is) while American English thinks of the collective noun as singular.

      In the contrary, American English uses subjunctive form while it seems British English doesn't use it .

      Then you have all of the people that don't understand the differences between intransitive (takes no object) and transitive. (Lay and lie, anyone?)

      What is going to happen to the English language? Increasingly, I see blatant grammatical errors on signs in big box stores, advertising, and even documentation!

      Is grammatically correct English where the native speakers understand the differences of English in different countries?

      How students possible learn a native language like German and hope to speak it correctly with the proper articles if they don't even the grammar rules of a language with commonalities with the language that they would like to learn?

      Is this why foreign languages are dying? Or is it imperialism? Or is modern communication technology giving English even more priority over other languages?

      Anonymous Coward Sig 2.0:
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      • by mmarlett (520340) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:57AM (#20806771)
        English, as a language, is a tar baby. Punch it and it will stick to you. English is wiping other languages out (becoming the lingua franca, if you will) for two -- no, three -- reasons. One, money and power. Two, it's as flexible as it is convoluted. Three, pure entertainment.

        Don't think American's use collective nouns? Bull. Don't think British English uses the subjective form? They must not be watching TV.

        If you want rigid adherence to rules of grammar and spelling that don't keep up with the actual usage, go speak French. Or Latin. Or be the 27th idiot to learn Esperanto, which has no problem keeping up with actual usage (your contributions would be welcome, I'm sure).

        Now, excuse me while I lie about getting laid.
      • by Nefarious Wheel (628136) * on Monday October 01, 2007 @01:02AM (#20806809) Journal
        It's getting worse -- I drive by a building every day that proclaims "Systems Intergrators" in large and expensive signage. It kind of hurts to see it.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          CNN news stories frequently are mangled too. The recent PowerPoint presentation on recruiting and the Navy also had a number of glaring problems. And then there is my all-time favorite - confusing "your" and "you're". That one in particular really bothers me when people don't even know the difference between a possessive and a contraction for "you are".
      • by datapharmer (1099455) on Monday October 01, 2007 @02:07AM (#20807123) Homepage
        It isn't that students and other don't understand "proper" grammar, it is that "proper" grammar only exists in books and actually isn't correct at all (though it might have been at one point). Languages are dynamic, and as English evolves the old rules of grammar become modified.

        Differences between British English, American English, and Indian English are all just a matter of colloquialisms and preferences. heck you could say the same thing about the differences between Bostonian, Southern, and Midwestern dialects within the United States (such as vowel pronunciation in Boston, second person plural use in the south, and regional vocabulary for carbonated beverages in the midwest).

        As the influence of global relations (trade, culture and otherwise) expand the differences in usage will likely decrease in public publications and media but increase within subcultures as the psychological need to create a individual/social identity becomes increasingly difficult in an ever more homogeneous world culture.

        This doesn't mean anyone is talking "wrong". Unless you are trying to be silly, you can't really speak your native tongue in any way but the right one!
      • by mysticgoat (582871) on Monday October 01, 2007 @02:46AM (#20807297) Homepage Journal

        What is going to happen to the English language?

        It is evolving faster than probably any language ever has before, and the rate of its change is likely to increase.

        For years now, there are more users of English as a second language than there are native speakers of the language. If we have not done so already, we are coming close to the point where there is more correspondence in English between people who learned English as a second language than there is correspondence that involves at least one native speaker of English. We are also moving toward the point where there sum of all documents ever published in English by native English speakers is smaller than the total of all English documents written by non-natives.

        It is now not uncommon for a Finn, a Pakistani, an Israeli, and a Brazilian to collaborate on a software project written in Python, Ruby, or Perl, and use English as the language for all aspects of the project even though none of them are good speakers of English.

        English is getting stripped of a bunch of silly rules that were never really core to the language, and is being expanded by a bunch of new concepts that new users are bringing in from their own native languages. The result is probably going to offend the sensibilities of a lot of the older English teachers in English speaking countries. Gee, that's too bad if they can't keep up. But the benefits of a global language are worth putting up with jarring phrases and strange sounding usages.

        • by Rufty (37223) on Monday October 01, 2007 @04:48AM (#20807803) Homepage
          Nothing is new. English started so that "Norman knights could chat up Saxon barmaids"
          And now it's used for Russian Rubyists to insult Portuguese Pythonistas? Plus ca change ...
        • by Chas (5144) on Monday October 01, 2007 @05:34AM (#20807977) Homepage Journal
          English follows other languages down dark alleys, hit them over the head, and rifles through their pockets for loose grammar.
        • by Colin Smith (2679) on Monday October 01, 2007 @05:42AM (#20807999)
          A language is just a communication protocol. Would you say that having 7000 incompatible networking protocols is a good thing? No, it patently isn't. Thousands of incompatible languages simply help create pockets of ignorance and deprivation. The only people who benefit are those who can translate.

          Having said that. The corollary is that learning multiple languages is a good idea for an individual. If you live in the UK and speak only English then you are excluded from the largest economies on the continent; France Germany etc. The French and Germans all speak English. If their economies tank, they can always look for work in the UK.

          Speaking of which, I have a German lesson this evening.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by zeromorph (1009305)

            A language is just a communication protocol.

            No, it's not. It's a way of how relate to the world, it's a way of being. Most of our reality is categorized through linguistic categories. If we loose them we loose our world.

            If you skip from English to German, it's not a big step (on a global scale), the are closely related (being both West-Germanic) and have been in contact for centuries. The speech communities share large parts of their religious and political believes, their material culture is quite simi

        • by David Off (101038) on Monday October 01, 2007 @08:15AM (#20808653) Homepage
          What you have described is effectively how English got started in the 8-12th centuries where it became the interface language between Saxon and Viking tribes and later Saxon and Norman conquerors. In the process it lost a lot of the more complicated features of Germanic languages while picking up a richer vocabulary from French. As a native speaker I personally welcome some of the anachronisms and archaic parts of English vanishing but I think the result will be that English as she was spoken C 1950 will be extinct by 2100.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by fireboy1919 (257783)
          English is getting stripped of a bunch of silly rules that were never really core to the language

          What's at the core? IMHO, English *is* just a bunch of silly rules. I'm not sure that the core is actually part of the language itself, but rather the worldwide culture that has made it easy for new words, silly rules, and ideas to easily be added or removed.

          Personally, I think of it as the perl of natural languages - there's many, many more ways than one to say it, and the language-culture includes built-in w
    • I for one welcome our new Chinese/English speaking overlords.....its the first step to having Firefly back on TV.
      I, for one, prefer when nobody knows what I'm saying when I swear in Chinese.
    • by thsths (31372) on Monday October 01, 2007 @03:06AM (#20807405)
      > I for one welcome our new Chinese/English speaking overlords

      Don't worry about the Chinese. Bad English is still the most widely spoken language :-)

      Oh, and did you notice how X.25 is dying out? He have to do something to preserve it. Not.
  • Good thing? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by icthus13 (972796) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:09AM (#20806339)
    Wouldn't this be a good thing? Less languages will mean more people speaking the same one, thus promoting better communication.
    • Re:Good thing? (Score:5, Informative)

      by reddish (646830) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:19AM (#20806427) Homepage

      From The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy:

      "Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."
      • by Moraelin (679338) on Monday October 01, 2007 @04:56AM (#20807841) Journal
        I know you're just joking, but, just in case, consider this: how much manipulation is facilitated by the fact that those doing it can cherry-pick what they translate, and rely on a mass of sheep who don't know the other language and can't be arsed to check?

        If someone in, say, America were to tell you that the Canadians as a whole are preaching holy Jihad upon the infidel Americans, everyone would just call him nuts. There are maybe millions of people who live close to the border or travel across the border, and can tell you relatively first hand what the Canadians actually say. Or if not, you can just order a newspaper and read for yourself what they do say. Even if they were to manage to find one nutcase preaching holy war, everyone would point out just that: it's just one idiot that noone else takes seriously.

        Now try Americans vs Arabs, Arabs vs Jews, or whatever other manipulation across a language barrier. Now that works much better, doesn't it? You can cherry-pick which extremists (on both sides) to translate out of context, to make it sound like a whole language or ethnic group is hell-bent on wiping you off the face of the Earth. (Never mind that no group that size ever agreed on anything else, for as long as we have a recorded history.)

        It goes sorta like this: Some fringe group on side A does a bit of fist shaking and maybe sabre rattling. Idiot politicians or journalists on side B take that out of context, maybe even mis-translate it a bit, present it as "Look what side A is saying about us!" Then some easily excitable nutcase on side B goes, basically, "yeah, well, I say nuke the idiots until they glow and let their god sort them!" Then idiot politicians or journalists on side A (or whoever has a vested interest in stirring up the pot) take _that_ out of context, maybe even take a pick of words when translating to sound even more ferocious, and present it as "Look what side B is saying about us!" Loop.

        Sometimes even the subtle meaning of one word can be altered enough in translation to cause a big rift, although technically it is a honest-to-god translation.

        E.g., a lot of the relatively early Christian problems leading schisms and heresies, a good thousand years before Hus and Luther, were... translation problems. Stuff that made sense about Christ in Greek, sounded like a major heresy when translated in Syriac, because the nuances of some words were different.

        And that was guys who did a good faith effort to translate the scriptures and the dogmas decided in the church councils. Now imagine what you can do when you aren't that honest, and don't stop short of outright distorting the other side's words.

        Or the even shorter version: if that quote was right, the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia should be the greatest enemies in history.
    • Re:Good thing? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by lawpoop (604919) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:26AM (#20806483) Homepage Journal
      I guess it depends on which side of the extinction you are facing.

      Let me put it this way: would it be a good things if most of the worlds religions are facing extinction, wouldn't that be a good thing? Less wars? If most of the world's cuisines were facing extinction, wouldn't that be a good thing? Music styles and dance?

      Try chatting with a Native North American one day, and ask how they feel about the extinction of indigenous languages. Here in the United States, indigenous people suffered deliberate attempts at extermination, marginalization, and assimilation. At various times, it was illegal to speak Native languages, practice Native religions, or hold traditional dances or ceremonies, such as weddings. A lot of Native tradition have disappeared, and those that still exist are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Not many Native Americans I've spoke to are happy about the state of affairs.

      Some might answer, "Oh well, that's the way things go. Who cares if we lose a culture in the middle of the amazon? In history, there are winners and losers. It sucks, but it happens." Are those people willing to say the same thing about the annihilation that Jews were facing during WWII? If Hitler had conquered the world, he may have succeeded in exterminating the Jews. Would we be so quick to say "Oh well, the Jews lost out in the history of the world" as we are some tribe on an island? Why or why not?
      • Re:Good thing? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by rolfwind (528248) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:41AM (#20806623)

        Let me put it this way: would it be a good things if most of the worlds religions are facing extinction, wouldn't that be a good thing?
        It really depends on how such a situation comes about. I can forsee scenarios where less religion (vs religions) can be a good thing.

        Religions are not always benevolent in their own right.

        Would we be so quick to say "Oh well, the Jews lost out in the history of the world" as we are some tribe on an island?
        You seem to be putting more value on one group of people versus another. Why?
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by lawpoop (604919)

          Would we be so quick to say "Oh well, the Jews lost out in the history of the world" as we are some tribe on an island?

          You seem to be putting more value on one group of people versus another. Why?

          Sorry, I wasn't clear in what I was trying to communicate. I'm asking why we, as a culture, put more value on certain groups of people ( say, Jews ) over others ( say, tribes in the middle of the amazon ). Personally, I think cultural extinction is bad for anyone, whether they are westerners, Native Americans, or whomever. However, I've noticed that when people say that loss of culture of, say, pacific islanders, is a natural process and there's nothing we can do about it, there is general silent agreeme

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        I guess it depends on which side of the extinction you are facing.

        If English was facing extinction in favor of Chinese or French I'd be happy with that.

        At various times, it was illegal to speak Native languages, practice Native religions, or hold traditional dances or ceremonies, such as weddings.

        Those were "unnatural" (i.e. forced) attempts at extinction. This is natural (i.e. willingly happening on those that speak the language who give it up in favor of another language with those who refuse to give it up dying due to old age) and so much more palatable.

        • by Moraelin (679338) on Monday October 01, 2007 @05:07AM (#20807883) Journal
          Ya know, screw both English and Chinese. That's a problem created by humans, so maybe we should just take a step back. A UK cat has no problem communicating with an Asian breed, for example. (Well, when it can be arsed to communicate, anyway;) It's a global language. So I say let's all learn to meow.

          On the upside, IIRC they have like 100 words total, so we can give up on the whole character set madness. (If I give you a .txt file, is it in UTF-8, UTF-16 -- big or small endian at that? --, or one of the two dozen ISO-8859 flavours, or EBCDIC, or what?) Good old fashioned 7 bit is enough for whole words.

          Plus, it'll be easier to know if your cat is actually plotting against you.

          Plus, think how much easier poetry will be. E.g., you have to rhyme with "meow", you can't go wrong with "mew" or "mrow".
      • by SQL Error (16383) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:51AM (#20806727)

        Let me put it this way: would it be a good things if most of the worlds religions are facing extinction, wouldn't that be a good thing? Less wars? If most of the world's cuisines were facing extinction, wouldn't that be a good thing? Music styles and dance?
        Yes. Yes. And having experiences some of these: Yes. Yes and yes.

        Oh, and Godwin.
      • by ashitaka (27544) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:58AM (#20806789) Homepage
        There have been thousands of cultures that have developed, sometimes to world-conquering levels, then faded and disappeared. Some did so naturally through being unable to self-sustain, others were the result of genocide or forced assimilation. Whether you feel sad about it or not, if Hitler had succeeded the Jewish culture would definitely not be the first to disappear through violent means. Not by a long shot.

        The difference now is that there are forces that speed up the extinction of non-self-sustaining types of cultures. Here in Canada there are more than a few First Nations languages which no more than a couple of people still speak. These are being recorded and documented as quickly as possible but it is understood that these will die out as soon as there is no one who needs to use them as part of their daily existence.

        Is it sad that this is happening? Only if you don't realize the fact that the only reason there are so many different languages on earth is because of historic geographic isolation of all the different peoples. With instant worldwide communication and the ability to travel to just about any spot on the earth within a day or two, the conditions that allowed disparate languages and cultures to develop in the first place no longer exist.

        That being said, languages are still developing and evolving, but now due more to artificial forces such as intentional introduction of slang as personal identification and new technologies and methods that need new terms to describe. e.g.: "Double-click the minimize control to select the desired HDMI input". Perfectly understandable to you and me, complete gibberish to most people over 50. And that's just in English.

        We live in interesting times. The second case of technological development having a profound effect on all mankind, the first being the industrial revolution. I believe this second phase will have a much greater effect than the first.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by lawpoop (604919)

          the fact that the only reason there are so many different languages on earth is because of historic geographic isolation of all the different peoples.

          This is false. In africa, the amazon, and other places with lots of tribes and villages living close to one another, who regularly trade and intermarry, it is commonplace for a person growing up to speak five or six languages. Linguists theorize that this was the norm for human evolution, since children are so good at learning multiple languages.

          When languages die out, it's because of an 'official language' that children must learn ( and learn in ) in school, and also use to interact with the government a

      • Re:Good thing? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ceoyoyo (59147) on Monday October 01, 2007 @01:16AM (#20806865)
        There's a wee bit of a difference between exterminating all members of an ethnic group you can get your hands on and a particular culture, language whatever dying out for lack of interest.

        While native Americans had something to complain about in the past there is a LOT of encouragement for them to maintain their culture now. Most of the younger generation simply isn't interested. They have a point -- a lot of the tradition is badly outdated.

        Culture is valuable in that it provides variety, but at some point a lot of it is something that needs to go live in a museum because it simply isn't relevant to modern life. Every person alive has abandoned most of the culture of their ancestors. There's simply too much to actively maintain. I don't know how to speak Latin, build a square rigged sailing ship or shoe a horse (all things at least some of my ancestors would have been able to do). The white/Christian/English speaking group just likes to feel responsible for everything and therefore guilty.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by king-manic (409855)
        Try chatting with a Native North American one day, and ask how they feel about the extinction of indigenous languages. Here in the United States, indigenous people suffered deliberate attempts at extermination, marginalization, and assimilation. At various times, it was illegal to speak Native languages, practice Native religions, or hold traditional dances or ceremonies, such as weddings. A lot of Native tradition have disappeared, and those that still exist are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Not m
    • Esperanto! (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Tmack (593755)

      Less languages will mean more people speaking the same one, thus promoting better communication.

      Yes! Now that everyone is finally picking up on THE language, Esperanto [wikipedia.org], soon everyone will understand everyone else!!

      tm

    • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Monday October 01, 2007 @01:02AM (#20806805)
      There are some things you just cannot say in certain languages because they lack the constructs and idioms. At one stage my father and I could speak English, Afrikaans and Zulu reasonably well and we'd often mix these all and be able to express richer thoughts than by just sticking with one language. Having moved away from South Africa, my ability to speak both Afrikaans and Zulu have fallen away badly and I can now really only communicate in English.

      Various words just have no real translation. "Gesellig" (Dutch) just means so much more than the dictionary equivalents: genial, social. Similarly "mana" (Maori) means more than just pride or spirit.

      Kill a language and you kill a culture. Kill a culture and you end up with disaffected people. You just need to look at Inuit, Uustalian Aboriginal and various other groups to see that this is a bad thing.

      • by Dun Malg (230075) on Monday October 01, 2007 @02:06AM (#20807121) Homepage

        Various words just have no real translation. "Gesellig" (Dutch) just means so much more than the dictionary equivalents: genial, social.
        There are lots of words that have meanings that fall right in the middle of a cluster of words in another language, but have no perfect translation. Thing is, that's largely irrelevant. There's no large, gaping hole in your ability to describe your world to others simply because there's no exact word in English that means the same as "gesellig".

        Similarly "mana" (Maori) means more than just pride or spirit.
        Yeah, it means prestige/honor. You might argue that "prestige" doesn't capture the true essence of "mana", but I'd argue that you don't know the true meaning of "prestige". Unless you can articulate what's missing, you can't say there's a gap in the meaning. If you can articulate the diference, then you've demonstrated the English is perfectly capable of communicating the concept--- it just doesn't have a singular word for it. There's nothing magic about having a special word for something. If it's truly an important concept, a word will be created for it, or borrowed from another language. Language is a living, flexible tool. It can adapt to anything.

        Kill a language and you kill a culture. Kill a culture and you end up with disaffected people.
        RTFA. No one is "killing" these languages. They're dying because people are abandoning them. Cultures are dying for the same reason. The notion that aboriginal culture should be preserved at all costs ignores the fact that doing so requires that we keep people living in stone-age squalor and forbid them modern conveniences like manufactured clothing, steel tools, or (horrors!) television! Cultures come and go. Old people decry it, young people embrace it. It's the oldest story in human history.
    • We're seriously behind schedule on that Tower of Babel project.

      About the only good thing here is the introduction of newer materials. Labor costs have gone way up, and you can't even get slaves anymore.
  • Maybe... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fyngyrz (762201) * on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:09AM (#20806343) Homepage Journal

    ...we should look at is as the world population's inability to communicate is going extinct.

    Not everything that is old, traditional, or entrenched has the value nostalgia makes us want to apply to it.

    • Re:Maybe... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by langelgjm (860756) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:36AM (#20806583) Journal

      That is one way to look at it. However, I'd argue there's a lot more than nostalgia at stake here. I'm no linguist, but it seems fairly self-evident (and something that is backed up by linguistics) that different languages give rise to different ways of thinking about things. Certain concepts just don't exist in language X, but do in Y and Z. This can have a profound effect on higher level thinking in the language, as well as providing for curiosities, like that language that only has words for one, two and many. [newscientist.com]

      Also, there's a lot of linguistic and anthropological history at stake. When languages go extinct, you lose a great resource for understanding the evolution of that language, as well as all the others that are related to it.

    • Re:Maybe... (Score:5, Informative)

      by identity0 (77976) on Monday October 01, 2007 @01:25AM (#20806913) Journal
      Ugh, it figures that a lot of people here seem to agree with you, Slashdot is basically a sewer when it comes to any of the social sciences.

      This can only really be a bad thing, because languages themselves are important data, especially in historical linguistics. Look up "Proto-Indo-European" on google. Basically people figured out based on the similarities of languages like Snaskirt, Latin and German, that most of the languages of Europe and west to central Asia were derived from an early (bronze age) language spoken by one people, which later branched out into the Indic, Germanic, Slavic and Romance language families. The study of languages thus has an impact outside of the lanuage itself, it can contribute greatly to the knowledge of the human race. This however is not possible if ou keep destroying the data, i.e. the languages in question.

      So unless you feel that history and archaeology are basically unimportant (probably not a uncommon opinion here), preservation of languages does have a rather important role in science.

      Also, studying what is possible in real-world language syntax and grammar can teach us about the language faculties of our brain, and what its limits are.

      I'm curious why you think that the destruction of language is a nessecary part of increasing communication, however. You seem to be assuming people can only speak one language? The greatest spread of English has been as a second or third language to various foreign groups, so it is clearly possible to have both lingustic diversity and a common communications medium.
  • by Harmonious Botch (921977) * on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:09AM (#20806353) Homepage Journal
    To me, extinction of lots of languages is a good thing ( especially if it includes COBOL :). With one common language, we may have a better chance of understanding each other. Remember the biblical tale of Babel, in which the profusion of languages was supposedly a punishment? How did we acquire the idea that languages have some values of their own? A language is a tool, to be replaced with a better one when it comes along.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Belacgod (1103921)
      Lots of information is recorded in the dying ones, much of which doesn't precisely translate to anything else. It's as if the world had upgraded to a new file system, leaving it unable to access a large chunk of its backups except through a few old computers, whose hardware was failing.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by shanen (462549)
      Let me guess. You're an American, right? You think the only language that needs to survive is American English, right? Why should you have to deal with any of those ugly alien thoughts, especially the new and different ones.

      Me, I don't think any of us have a perfect understanding of anything. Actually, one way to interpret Godel's theorem is to say that no language can do that. The various perspectives and representations all have some degree of validity and invalidity--but comparing them and thinking about
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Pastis (145655)
      How many languages do you speak ? Let me guess. One ?

      As one post replying to yours said a language is linked to a culture. The language and the culture disappear together.

      I will add the following: a language is an imperfect way to express our ideas. There is not necessarily a one to one mapping between a concept in your head and a word. The word comes with its bit of culture, of use in different contexts, that allow other people to understand what you mean or sometimes go in the way if they don't have that
  • by Dhrakar (32366) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:12AM (#20806361)
    Heh. That reminds me of an old joke. What do you call a person who knows 3 languages? 'trilingual' What do you call a person who knows 2 languages? 'bilingual' What do you call a person who knows 1 language? 'American'.
    • by Harmonious Botch (921977) * on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:37AM (#20806587) Homepage Journal
      Hey, it's not our fault that we were taught the universal language as children.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by huckamania (533052)
      The problem for most Americans is that they never get to practice their second language. A second language is usually a requirement for graduating high school. Same is true for most colleges. Unfortunately, if you don't have a chance to use it, you forget most of it.

      This probably explains why most 2nd generation Americans don't speak the language of their parents.

      Spanish is probably the only other language besides English that a majority of Americans will ever get a chance to use in the US. Even so,
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Brandybuck (704397)
        Precisely. For most places in Europe, it's only two or three hours drive to another nation speaking another language. But from where I live, it's a full day's drive to Mexico, but who wants to go to Mexico? In the other direction it's two days drive to Canada, where they speak English. (At least four days to get to where they speak French).
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by jollyreaper (513215)

        The problem for most Americans is that they never get to practice their second language. A second language is usually a requirement for graduating high school. Same is true for most colleges. Unfortunately, if you don't have a chance to use it, you forget most of it.
        I took Latin in high school. Unfortunately, I never got to take the trip to Latin America to try it out. :(
    • by NerveGas (168686) on Monday October 01, 2007 @02:37AM (#20807257)
      Yeah, that joke is pretty funny. But it's not entirely true... a while back, we were holding interviews in our company, and an applicant listed poliglotism as one of his hobbies. One of the other interviewers remarked "That's really interesting. All of us (speaking of those of us conducting the interview) speak at least one other language - let's see, Portugese, Spanish, Spanish, Korean, Japanese. Which languages do you speak?"

      The poor guy just sunk down into his chair, and mumbled "Well... none, really." I felt bad for the guy. :-)
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by clickety6 (141178)
      I'm an English guy in Germany. Some years back a group of young American lads came into a bar where we were drinking. We got to talking with them, when one of the Americans asked "so, where are you from". "England", I replied. "Gee, you sure speak good American for a foreigner", was his answer.


  • A few decades from now, we'll all be speaking spanish!
  • SUV's (Score:5, Funny)

    by Tablizer (95088) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:13AM (#20806381) Homepage Journal
    Not quite sure how yet, but have a feeling that SUV's are in part responsible for this.
  • by Comatose51 (687974) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:20AM (#20806431) Homepage
    Maybe things will turn out like Firefly/Serenity predicted: Mandarin Chinese and English would be left as the two languages spoken by all humans.

    I know that Mandarin is slowly taking over in China with its a hundred plus dialects of Chinese. Even dialects with millions of speakers are falling into disuse by the younger people who prefer to speak Mandarin instead of their native dialect. The government has put no effort into this but since they use Mandarin in school everyone in my generation can speak it. It then becomes a networking effect or Metcalfe's law. Mandarin is just much more useful than the other dialects because you have a billion speakers instead of just a few million. Why bother using those? Plus the regional dialects are what the parents and grandparents use. Mandarin is the cooler, hipper dialect.

    It'll be sad when the regional dialects die out because some of them are much older than Mandarin and some classical Chinese poems only rhyme properly in the south dialects such as Cantonese.
  • by dswensen (252552) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:21AM (#20806439) Homepage
    Damn you global warming.
  • 14 Days (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pokerdad (1124121) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:29AM (#20806509)

    I recently heard that a language goes extinct every 14 days, which for some reason pisses me off. No, I'm not pissed off that languages are going away (though I can see more value in them than some here), but rather that it would be expressed that way. Clearly it is meaningless to talk about this kind of change in a time frame of days, so the only reason to state "every 14 days", instead of a more meaningful figure like 250/decade would be to try to manipulate the listener into action.

    But while linguists would like to make this out to be a calmity similar to wildlife extinction (hence the manipulation), there really is no practical solution to this situation; you can't force a language to live on - people either have a use for it, or they don't.

  • by DragonTHC (208439) <Dragon.gamerslastwill@com> on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:32AM (#20806537) Homepage Journal
    70% of the world can't even read or write their own languages.

    a single language will go a long way towards resolving disputes and possibly even wars.
    Different cultures must assimilate into the global culture or become obsolete.

    On the other hand, these disappearing cultures have a lot to teach us.
    Tribal wisdom must be translated and passed down to be preserved for the remainder of human history.
    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:40AM (#20806611) Journal

      a single language will go a long way towards resolving disputes and possibly even wars.


      Yeah, after all, the Brits and Americans never fought, neither did all those German states or all those Latin-speaking folks. I mean, they all lived in harmony, and never took to arms.

      Where the hell do you people learn your history? I'm thinking you probably don't.
  • Vanilla Culture (Score:3, Insightful)

    by some old guy (674482) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:35AM (#20806569)
    This is merely another symptom of humanity lurching steadily toward a drab, gray, intellectually sterile future, where cultural diversity will be eclipsed by monotony. In a monolingual, monocultural future, people all around the globe will be able to talk alright, but there will be much less to talk about.

    Ah, well. As the late great Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "So it goes."
  • Secret Information (Score:3, Interesting)

    by paleshadows (1127459) on Monday October 01, 2007 @12:39AM (#20806603)
    here are some reasons why we'd want to preserve dying languages [from the paper]:

    When a language is lost, centuries of human thinking about animals, plants, mathematics, and time may be lost with it, Swarthmore's Harrison said. "Eighty percent of species have been undiscovered by science, but that doesn't mean they're unknown to humans, because the people who live in those ecosystems know the species intimately and they often have more sophisticated ways of classifying them than science does," he said. "We're throwing away centuries' worth of knowledge and discoveries that they have been making all along." In Bolivia, Harrison and Anderson met with Kallawaya people, who have been traditional herbalists since the time of the Inca Empire. In daily life the Kallawaya use the more common Quechua language. But they also maintain a secret language to encode information about thousands of medicinal plants, some previously unknown to science, that the Kallawayas use as remedies. The navigational skills of peoples in Micronesia, meanwhile, are similarly encoded in small, vulnerable languages, Harrison said. "There are people who may have a special set of terms ... which enable them to navigate thousands of miles of uncharted ocean ... without any modern instruments of navigation."
  • by nocensposteri (1101157) on Monday October 01, 2007 @01:13AM (#20806849)
    Yes, it is good that people can communicate as we move towards a one-world language. It breaks down a powerful barrier to understanding, as language is deeply intertwined with culture, history, and worldview.

    So thats good, practically speaking.

    Unfortunately, since language is so powerful in molding minds, we lose a lot when a language dies. We lose profound knowledge about a culture and the way it sees the world. To an anthropologist or linguist, this loss is irreplacable, which is why there are projects about whose goal is to record native languages before thier last speaker dies. Piecing together the natural history of humanity becomes that much harder when language dies.

    Like everything else, you take the good with the bad.
  • My god... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Starker_Kull (896770) on Monday October 01, 2007 @01:19AM (#20806877)
    ...the arrogance and small-mindedness of some of the normally (IMHO) insightful posters here is stunning.

    My father spoke five languages - none of which I learned to speak more than a few mumbles here and there. But I could see how different languages were better at expressing different emotions, different ideas, different viewpoints in life. Some languages have such a strong system of honorifics and class in them - others are deviod of that, but have different terms spoken by the different sexes as a reflection of cultural differences. There are some with phonetic alphabets, others more pictoral, some with a blend of the two. The variety and beauty of human languages is every bit as beautiful as works of music, painting, sculpture.... Should we let the last man who knows how to build a piano die because there are enough other musical instruments out there?

    Forget the structure of languages - what about all the ideas WRITTEN or SPOKEN in them that become forever inaccesable? How many of the Shakespeare's, Archemedes', Sun-Tzu's will be gone forever?

    Should we apply the same concepts to computer languages? Data structures? 'Who cares, we have better stuff now, we'll never need to read that old stuff again.'

    Language is a unique expression of humanity, and I think it is something worth preserving - even if it is not as practical as having Chinglish taking over the world.

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Monday October 01, 2007 @01:54AM (#20807049)
    ...pop pop la la la click click click. (If you know what I mean.)

    But seriously. This reminds me of the Futurama episode where Prof. Farnsworth shows Qbert his universal translator that, "unfortunately only translates into some incomprehensible dead language." Qbert says "hello" into the machine which translates it as "Bon Jour."

  • by belmolis (702863) <billposer@alum.[ ].edu ['mit' in gap]> on Monday October 01, 2007 @02:06AM (#20807119) Homepage

    The Living Languages Institute is just the latest of a number of organizations devoted to the study and/or maintenance and revitalization of endangered languages. Here are some other organizations and sources of information:

  • by Phrogman (80473) on Monday October 01, 2007 @02:08AM (#20807129) Homepage

    I am just stunned. I realize the majority of people here are probably monolingual and probably living in North America, but the majority of posts here seem to be along the lines of "Well it doesn't affect me, so who gives a f**k?" or "If they are dying out, they are just cruft". At least some people see the value in everyone having a common language - but thats the best argument for everyone to learn a SECOND language, not for us to just abandon all of the smaller languages out there.

    You see, a lot of those languages are dying out because the speakers of the more monolithic languages have forced them into extinction. We have made speaking many Native American languages illegal in the past, abused the cultures and people involved and slowly strangled their native language speaking populations to the point where they have all died off or are doing so daily. We have marginalized many small linguistic groups by the overwhelming power of Western culture and advertising, by refusing to learn their languages and insisting they learn ours or suffer the consequences. Thats a tragedy, nothing less.

    Each language is more than just a medium of communications between people, its the encapsulation of an entire way of thinking, of a cultural world-view. When a language dies out, a small piece of humanity and human achievement goes with it. We are all lessened by the death of each language, and with it each culture that dies out.

    I would think the programmers here would be the first to get it: You can program some things in certain programming languages, express some concepts, much more effectively and efficiently than in others. You can do anything in any language certainly, but some lean one way or another, some are more expressive and some more rigidly defined. Luckily we rarely lose a programming language, they just go out of style for the majority of users, but as long as someone is willing to write a compiler, we can keep using one. That is not true of human languages. Once they are gone, they are gone completely, and with them a unique way of thinking, and a unique way of viewing the world and expressing ideas about it. Languages quite honestly give you a completely different way of thinking and its a shame to lose that.

    New languages effectively don't happen, or at best rarely and I imagine its almost impossible for a new language to evolve in the modern day. Human linguistic evolution is essentially a living version of the Highlander maxim "there can be only one", or at best maybe 2. It doesn't have to be inevitable though, we can preserve dying languages, and with them the cultures they belong to. It just takes more effort than most people are willing to engage in, and sadly - like the majority of posters here - it doesn't seem to worry those who speak the major languages, particularly the world's piranha of a language English.

    If you want to have some good insight into this issue, I would suggest reading this book: Spoken Here [amazon.com] and perhaps: When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge [amazon.com] The steady extinction of our world's languages is a human crisis in my opinion, and we all lose when another language dies, even if we don't realize it.
    • I call bull shit (Score:4, Insightful)

      by tgv (254536) on Monday October 01, 2007 @04:59AM (#20807851) Journal
      "a lot of those languages are dying out because the speakers of the more monolithic languages have forced them into extinction.": Sad, but unrelated to the issue at hand. This is consequence of oppression. There are several organizations that address that: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, ...

      "Languages quite honestly give you a completely different way of thinking": Now there's a statement that requires a lot of backup. Language does not encapsulate ways of thinking; it's a means of conveying thoughts. Do you think that the Chinese cannot understand Plato? Their languages are about as far apart as possible.

      "New languages effectively don't happen": well, there's a plainly wrong statement. New languages do arise. Not very frequently, but they do. Usually Creole, but there are more interesting cases. Check e.g. the sign language developed by deaf Nicaraguan children.

      "the world's piranha of a language English": that's funny, but not really true either. Chinese is really gobbling up large portions of Asia and Spanish also seems to be spreading still.

      I honestly think there is no way to stop the process of language extinction. It has always happened: my native tongue (Dutch) is quite different from what it used to be and that holds for many languages. They develop. Small groups tend to disappear. That also has always been the case. You can find remains of settlements everywhere with signs of a lost culture, and probably a lost language.

      There is nothing inherently bad about that. It's not a question of ethics. Join Amnesty, support the Kurds and the Tibetans, but don't do it to save their language. Human life and thought is worth more than the precise way that they use to communicate.
  • Discouraging (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ChePibe (882378) on Monday October 01, 2007 @03:40AM (#20807545)
    I realize that much, though certainly not all, of the Slashdot crowd is monolingual, and I do realize that there are great benefits to having a single lingua franca.

    But as one who speaks 2 additional languages (Spanish and French) at an advanced conversational level and a third additional language (Arabic) at a very basic (and I mean very basic) level, I can't say I'm fond of this.

    It's hard to understand if you haven't learned another language, but certain thoughts are more easily expressed in a foreign language once you've learned it. Certain phrases and words are simply idiomatic - they don't translate. "Che Pibe" is one that, for example, can kind of be explained in English, but loses its real meaning. I still want to say "trucho", a word without an adequate translation, when I see something that meets the characteristics. English contains a great deal of French words, true, but the real meaning, tied to cultural context, just can't be conveyed unless you are speaking in French. Arabic and, I imagine, Chinese are light years away from English.

    I can accept a lingua franca, but language is an extremely important element of culture and expression. Most languages now dying were, arguably, dead long ago. But I shudder to think what would happen if the world adopted a "one language" stance rather than simply a lingua franca.
  • by slb (72208) * on Monday October 01, 2007 @04:01AM (#20807621) Homepage
    I'm OK with the linguists trying to mothball those old languages for the sake of knowledge and history.

    But the priority for a universal understanding should be to teach new generations a logical language [lojban.org] instead of trying to keep these alive.
  • Te Reo Maori (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kaffiene (38781) on Monday October 01, 2007 @04:21AM (#20807703)
    In New Zealand, the Maori language was arguably "dying out" a few decades ago. It was certainly on the decline. It is likewise arguable that Maori culture was going the same way. A concerted effort was put in place to teach Maori language and culture both in purpose built schools (Kohanga Reo) and to a lesser extent in mainstream schooling.

    Since the 70's, there has been a marked resurgence in Maori language, but more interestingly, in the culture itselft and pride in it. This has led to Maoridom pushing itself out onto the global stage in a much more assertive and confident manner than I think it had in the past. Something which I would argue has not only been of benefit to Maori, but to NZ society in general.

    I'm not opposed to there being a 'lingua franca' of the modern world, and if that happens to be English, I will be all the more pleased. But I also see that there is a real cost of languages disappearing from the world, because the words are not all that is lost: there are whole lives, whole other worlds wrapped up in particular languages. It seems to me, however, that languages do not save themselves. Unless there are a group of people willing to actually teach and actively support the usage of languages (Maori is an official language of NZ) then the task will not be managed.

    I don't think we can nor would want to save all languages, but where a significant chunk of unique culture is bound up with a disappearing language, I would encourage the guardians of the culture to make real moves to save it because the alternative is to lose much more than you bargained for.
  • by theolein (316044) on Monday October 01, 2007 @05:13AM (#20807905) Journal
    There, I hope I got your attention there: I really just wanted to add a few points here about languages, their uses and development.

    Firstly, I speak 5 languages fluently (English, Afrikaans, Dutch, German, Swiss-German and French) and can get by in two more (Spanish and Turkish). I'm a South African, my girlfriend is Afrikaans, I've lived in Switzerland for some 17 years now, and in Germany and Spain before that and in Turkey for a year as well. My father was French speaking. I'm not reciting all this to brag. The knowledge of different languages has been of vital use to me in my life and has actually saved my life on a number of occasions, literally.

    When I first got to Europe 21 years ago, I could only really speak English and Afrikaans. I knew a smattering of French from my dad, but I only really learned from my French girlfriend at the time. I worked in what was then West Berlin for the US Airforce, but before that, for my first year, I survived by doing odd jobs and basically pestering people to let me stay somewhere, and I learned German really quickly, because in those days, not many Germans could or wanted to speak English. The USAF people I knew, on the other hand, lived in American bases, went to American shops and watched American movies, and almost none of them understood a word of German. They had no need, but they had plenty of problems when out in the city doing shopping etc.

    When I worked in Turkey, as usual, I made the effort to communicate with the locals, who surprise surprise, generally only spoke Turkish and perhaps enough German to sell stuff to tourists. Knowing Turkish made me friends and made my life that much more pleasant, and cheaper, since I could order in Turkish I paid the prices that locals paid for drinks and food which is considerably less than tourists pay.

    A tidbit of info is that the Turkic languages are so closely related that knowledge of Turkish will enable you to make yourself understood from Turkey to Kazakhstan, including parts of Russia where Tartar is spoken, which is quite a span of territory. Not that I ever plan on visiting that part of the world, but if I ever do get the chance to see the Altai mountains, I'll be able to get around without too much trouble.

    Another tidbit of info is that Turkic grammar gives you a head start if you ever need to learn Hungarian, Finnish or want to chat up a blond Estonian beauty. They all work the same way.

    Another one is traveling in France. The French are also somewhat monolingual, like most English speakers, and I know a lot of Americans having a bad time in France because they find the French resentful of having to speak English. The joke is that the French generally don't mind if you don't speak French, but they really appreciate it if you just try a few words.

    Switzerland is another special case. Swiss German is a dialect of Alemannic that is unintelligible to most Germans from the North of Germany, with some subdialects that are incomprehensible to almost all Germans. It is the most spoken language in Switzerland, but it is not a written language. The written language of Switzerland is German. You can get by perfectly with standard German in Switzerland, but knowledge of the spoken language is what will make you friends or get you business contacts with the locals. There is even a local language that is endangered, called Rumantsch, which is a direct descendant of the vulgar latin the Romans soke here 2000 years ago. It is kept alive by the Swiss not for its practical value, since all of its speakers are also fluent in German, but for its cultural heritage. It adds colour to the landscape, so to speak.

    I'm telling all these stories in an attempt to show that just because you think English is a universal language doesn't make it so. In Zurich, where I work, everyone in my company speaks English to some degree, but the one guy who only spoke English at work constantly had to fight against the language barrier. I don't think he was very happy. It's often the same in large parts of
  • by Opportunist (166417) on Monday October 01, 2007 @07:21AM (#20808349)
    Of course it's going to be easier to communicate. But we'll lose a lot. Mostly, a lot of people will lose their way of thinking, having to conform to a language that does not fit into their thinking pattern.

    When you look at a language and its composition, you'll notice that every language reflects its users and their culture. No, I'm not going for the 20 words for snow in Inuit. I'm going for the very, very finely tune nuances of reverence in Japanese, something that cannot even remotely be reproduced in any other language I know. And of course, that way you simply cannot understand the culture that is behind it. You can promote and punish a coworker with the use of a syllable.

    How to translate it? Not at all. There is no way to translate it. There is not even a way to express it. Because explaining it or using "stronger" words (that would have to be used in English or other languages) would, you guessed it, already break the unwritten laws of etiquette. You're not supposed to really 'hear' it, you're supposed to know it from listening closely.

    And I can only assume it's similar with other cultures and languages. Maybe (or most likely) in other areas, areas in everyday life that are more important than social status, but nontheless parts of their culture. This will most likely suffer from a lack of an own language that lends itself to the needs of the culture.
  • by Frozen Void (831218) on Monday October 01, 2007 @08:36AM (#20808779)
    Start learning Sumerian next week.
  • by slashname3 (739398) on Monday October 01, 2007 @09:03AM (#20809013)
    This is just horrible! We have to get the U.N. to start massive programs to preserve all these different languages. We can't let them become extinct. What will future generations do? We have to keep things as diverse as possible. This is worse than global warming. I wonder if Al Gore knows about this!

    Why are so many people worried about languages dying off? In the long run this may solve some of the major problems we have in this world. If there were better communications between people we might not have so many misunderstandings that seem to be the cause of so many of the conflicts that are going on now. Just imagine the difference if most of the world spoke the same language? This is something that would bring everyone closer together on issues instead of dividing us.

    We have to strive to reach common ground. But if this goes like most things there will be groups that will push to preserve all these languages. I can see it now, there will be walls erected around certain sections in each country where only the local dialect can be spoken under penalty of law. How else to preserve the spoken language but to isolate groups of people that speak that particular dialect?

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