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Silent Extinction: Language Loss Reaches Crisis Levels

Olga Vasilievna Latikova (Tyganova) helped several generations of linguists and ethnologists to understand the Ket language and culture. She passed away in 2007. (courtesy of Olga Kazakevich)
With fewer than 200 speakers left, Ket is critically endangered. The language is spoken in only a handful of villages that dot the upper Yenisei Valley in central Siberia. And with so few speakers, its demise might seem insignificant.

Like all languages, however, Ket is unique. Its grammar is one of the most complex ever documented by linguists. And for Ket speakers themselves, the language is filled with living links to their ancestors, their past, and their traditions. Its loss would represent a profound silence.

"Your ancestors, if you speak to them in your dreams -- they don't speak English. So what language are you talking to them in?" says Dr. Gregory Anderson, a Harvard-educated linguist and director of the Living Tongues Institutes for Endangered Languages. "There's a disconnect from your history that's very real and tangible for people that are undergoing language shift in a way that people who speak dominant majority languages like English or Spanish or Russian simply don't face."

Anderson's point is especially relevant when it comes to Ket. The language is not only a bridge to the Ket speakers' own ancestors but possibly to a larger human story. Emerging studies show that Ket may be a distant relative of native-American languages like Navajo. If so, the link could have wide anthropological resonance, helping to substantiate the theory of prehistoric human migration across an ice bridge from Asia to the Americas. And since Ket is spoken thousands of kilometers inland from Russia's eastern coast, the link may extend our estimates of the migration's scale.

For all these reasons, linguists watch in horror as languages such as Ket move closer to extinction in our ever more globalized world. Of the more than 6,700 languages spoken in the world, half are in danger of disappearing before the century ends.

Behind that statistic is a host of economic, social, and psychological factors that are together fueling a silent extinction. A handful of linguists fight language loss on a daily basis, but for many laypersons -- and governments -- UNESCO's International Mother Language Day on February 21 is the only day the issue is considered. Linguists say far more attention is needed if the world's languages, and all that they encode, are to remain vital.

LISTEN: Valentina Nikolaievna Tyganova reads the beginning of a Ket folktale.

Every Two Weeks, One Language Less

According to the National Geographic Society, a language dies out every 14 days. At that rate, almost 3,500 languages spoken around the world will be out of use by the year 2100. That would be about half of the languages spoken today.

Particularly hard-hit would be places that contain some of the greatest linguistic diversity on the planet, "hotspots" like New Guinea, the Caucasus, and Siberia. As these languages disappear, there are small groups of linguists struggling to document them and, if possible, revitalize them before the speakers move on to more widely spoken tongues.

Mark Turin, linguistic anthropologist at Cambridge and director of the World Oral Literature Project, says it’s a daunting challenge. "Around the world, I would say we only know enough about 5 percent to 10 percent of the world's languages," he says. "Clear, lasting, accurate documentation, supported perhaps by audio or video recordings for the world's languages are few and far between, so the drama of the story is that about 5 percent of the world's [language] population is well documented and the other 95 percent is not."

That means any linguist trying to piece together the puzzle of how humans acquire and use languages mainly has to work with Western European languages and a handful of others.

In general, the fewer the speakers left, the less known the language is. It is these -- the some 28 percent of world languages that have fewer than 1,000 speakers -- that face the gravest risk of dying out. The Tirahi language of Afghanistan, for example has only about 100 speakers left. Lomavren, spoken in Armenia, had only 50 remaining speakers at last count.

Scientists have often found small languages to be a storehouse of local knowledge of medicinal plants and ecology. This, too, is lost to science as the languages disappear.

Why Languages Die

The reasons why a language falls out of use -- or why a language community shifts from its native tongue to another -- are complex.

Nevertheless, Dr. Anderson says the phenomenon is often rooted in one particular issue. "Economic activity is generally dominated by the majority language and the majority-language-speaking ethnic group, so therefore, it's logically associated with advancement, socioeconomic development, [and] wealth acquisition," he says.

Dr. Gregory Anderson (left) works with Middle Chulym-speaker Maksim Tarlaganov (photo: Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages)
"People are very sensitive to economic hierarchies, and if there's a way to move up that hierarchy by abandoning one language in favor of another, many people choose to do that."

And if the choice isn't conscious, it may be encouraged by social pressures.

But Anderson says a lingua franca used for the majority of business transactions in a country need not devalue minority languages. He says the solution is an "additive" rather than "subtractive" language dynamic -- where speakers of minority languages learn a larger language, perhaps more useful for business, while still maintaining their original tongue.

Politics, too, plays a significant role. Dominant national languages can be employed to drive out smaller ones, which can be viewed as promoting dissent or representing backwardness.

In Siberia, Russian-only linguistic policies have led to language loss that Anderson describes as nothing short of catastrophic. In Central Asia, however, the political sword has cut both ways.

When former Soviet republics became independent, regional languages like Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek gained the strengthened status of a national language. But the smaller languages in these regions -- the Pamir languages in Tajikistan, for example -- today have little to no promotion in schools, as they had, at least to some extent, during the Soviet Union.

What is clear, linguists say, is that one UNESCO Mother Language Day a year is not enough. Not enough to fully register the pervasiveness of language loss -- and the losses that come with it.