When language dies

Endangered languages are a global phenomenon. According to UNESCO’s latest Atlas of Endangered Languages, there are 7,000 languages in the world, of which more than half will die out in this century and 80% ~ 90% will die out in the next 200 years. In contrast, the extinction rate of animals and plants is much slower.

Language is dying out much faster than people think – on average, every two weeks, one language disappears without a sound.

Although China is not in a hot spot where languages are in danger, Dr. Huang Chenglong of the Institute of Minority Languages of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that China has 129 languages, of which more than half are of low vitality and at least 20 or 30 languages are in danger, such as Ainu in Yunnan, Hezhe in the northeast, Tata in Xinjiang, Yugu in Gansu and Tujia in the middle.

The vitality of language lies in intergenerational transmission, not in number. Small languages can be very energetic and large languages can be very fragile. For example, there are 10 million Manchu speakers in China, but now there are only over 100 people who can speak Manchu. With the death of the last group of old people who can speak Manchu, Manchu will die completely. Perhaps its written language will continue to exist, but without intergenerational transmission, it is just a meaningless shell.
Professor Harrison, an American linguist, said: ” Imagine that if whales are going to die out for no reason, or pyramids are going to collapse, and Amazon forests are being cut down, people will be very angry and will try their best to stop them, because they are the common heritage of mankind and are visible to the naked eye. Language is more ancient, complex and delicate human wealth. Each language is a unique structure of human existence. Every language has infinite possibilities of expression and collocation. Their vocabulary, pronunciation system and grammar are combined with exquisite structures, which are greater than any building we have built by hand. ”

Language usually dies in two ways: first, the speaker of the language disappears; Second, people who speak this language give up their mother tongue and use another language. In the past 200 years, the colonists have wiped out more than 150 indigenous languages in Australia and over 300 indigenous languages in North America. Now it is globalization. Economic and social pressure forces people to move from villages to cities. Their mother tongue is always under the oppression of strong language.
Talking about the advantages and disadvantages of language, Harrison said: ” No language can monopolize all human expressions. Anyone who has learned two languages knows that there is always something untranslatable between the two languages. Some concepts and some ways of thinking about the world, in the process of translation, you will feel a gap or loss. ”

According to his statistics, 80% of the world’s population speaks 83 major languages, and the remaining 6,000 – odd languages, most of which have never been recorded in written form. There are no dictionaries or books. You cannot find their information in any library or database. All information is only stored in people’s memory, so it is especially vulnerable. When we lose a language, we also lose the centuries of knowledge and thinking about time, season, astronomy, geography, marine biology, medicine, plants, history, mythology, music, and all kinds of daily affairs contained in the language. Professor Harrison collectively called these ” human knowledge base”.
Over the past 500 years, Bolivia’s Kallawaya indigenous people have embedded the knowledge of thousands of medicinal plants in a mysterious language that can only be passed down from father to son. Can’t these knowledge be translated into English and integrated into a single language knowledge base?

” Of course, but language is a structured form of information organization. Language is like a tree. When people move to another language, the structure of the original tree collapses. ”

Before her death, anthropologist Margarita Mead talked about her greatest worry about the world: ” Our world will be impacted into the same place without any color. All human imagination may be confined to a single mental and spiritual form. ” Perhaps the most terrible thing about the death of language is not how much knowledge of history, culture or species is lost, but that when we wake up one morning, we don’t even remember that the world once had different possibilities.