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Silent Tongues; Languages Lost Around the World

Updated on March 22, 2014

Let's Talk It Out

Language is one of the quintessential aspects of human life. It allows us to communicate our thoughts with each other in a way that no other animal can. The ability to use language to effectively interact with each other is a distinctly human characteristic, and helps us to form relationships, cultural identities, and economic trade. The minor nuances of language are shaped by where we live, what we know, and how we interact. History of cultures also plays a major role in the development and use of language. Noted linguist Edward Sapir said: "the mere fact of a common speech serves as a peculiarly potent symbol of the social solidarity of those who speak the language."

However, the beauty and magic of many languages and dialects are slowly disappearing from our societies. According to a UNESCO report, about ten languages die out from use every year. There are currently over 6,000 known languages in the world today, and almost half of those are at risk of fading from history. At this rate, languages die out each year at a faster rate than animal species become extinct. In the past 500 years, 1.3 percent of birds and 1.9 percent of mammals have become extinct, compared to 4.5 percent of all languages.

Welcome to the World
Welcome to the World | Source

Going Extinct

Only 300 languages today are at the least risk of disappearing, with over a million native speakers. Ten languages, including English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese, are spoken by half the world's population. This figure means that about half of the world's population speaks any of the other 6,000 languages currently in existence.

Ethnologue.com is a widely used database of all the languages spoken globally. According to their most recent report, about 417 languages that are currently spoken are known by so few people that they are literally on the verge of becoming extinct. Their records show that there are only a handful of living people who still speak Saami Pite, a native language of Sweden and Norway; just a small sect of people who speak Klamath in Oregon; and just a single living speaker of Luo, in Cameroon. While these and many other languages may never reach our ears, their importance to those who still value their language is virtually priceless.

Languages in danger of becoming extinct
Languages in danger of becoming extinct | Source

It would be difficult to imagine a world where no one understood the significance of "Mary had a little Lamb," or "Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore." The beauty of poetry, music, and stories would fade from existence due to disuse. Our dialects encompass everything from slang to accents and more, and they have the unique ability to separate and unite us, all at the same time. Language allows us to maintain feelings of cultural unity and kinship. Society and governments should work to preserve these endangered languages, to protect the culture, history, and identity of diverse people from around the globe.

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    • KMSplumeau profile image
      Author

      KMSplumeau 2 years ago

      Jodah, that's really interesting! I'm in the US and it's very rare that I hear stories about the Australian aboriginal history or current situation. That's fantastic though that they now have the opportunity to relearn this culture that was almost taken from them. I hope we are moving more in that direction in the US with the Native American community as well. Thanks!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This hub touches on a very important subject KM. In my country Australia because of the original aboriginal population being spread widely apart over the large land mass there were understandably many different dialects spoken. Also these people had no written language, Communication was spoken or passed on through paintings and dance. With white settlement many of these people were forced into schooling and children taken from their families and placed with white English speaking families etc so many of the original Aboriginal dialects were lost or in danger of it. Only recently there have been moves to resurrect and preserve these and many Aboriginal children are now beginning to relearn their native languages.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      An interesting hub - thank you. There is such a range of subtle differences even in one language as spoken in different areas let alone countires, it omakes one think what nuances are lost if these unknown languages vanish. Thanks for sharing

    • KMSplumeau profile image
      Author

      KMSplumeau 2 years ago

      Thanks very much! I'll have to put that on my reading list. Glad you liked the hub!

    • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

      Eldon Arsenaux 2 years ago from Cooley, Texas

      I'm reminded of 19th century assimilation efforts (North American Indian Boarding Schools and more ghastly means) by the United States Government to physically displace Native children from their homes, in order to separate them from their language/social heritage. Of course today such things aren't done outright, but I think it serves as an obvious link to the undercurrent of present day language-politics, where American English is unofficially required (or the language of means), and thus other languages are viewed as unusable.

      Language is symbolic, thus, if the language is lost, the social symbols are lost- the culture (it's traditional means of story-telling and thereby grouping) de facto disappears.

      Dug the Hub!

      I do recall several social movements in the United States from etymologists and linguists to find Native speakers and convert their oral language into the written word to be preserved. The Cherokee, for instance, are great exemplars of constructing and creating a written form of their communication after hundreds of years of purely oral or symbolic story-telling. Sad to say, but languages, like species, go extinct. That is not to say their survival rate cannot be supported and sustained!

      P.s. Recommend reading Gloria Anzaldua's Boderlands/La Frontera)

      -E.G.A.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 2 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      I understand the world is quickly reaching the point where only 8 languages are spoken. Yet, it is necessary to preserve our many languages. Regarding the 2004 tsunami - the people who spoke the native languages of the country and understood the local culture knew it was coming, and all escaped it with only one exception. They could tell by the way the animals were acting, and even the sound of their paddles in the water.

      I live in Hawaii, where they're working to preserve the language and culture. Yes, it is important!

    • Nicoinstitches profile image

      Nico 2 years ago from Ottawa, ON

      interesting

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub. Real interesting to learn about foreign language that have been silenced. Very interesting. Voted up!

    • Kappygirl profile image

      Kappygirl 2 years ago

      I've always been fascinated by languages. This was very interesting.