Languages that are threatened with the loss of natural generational transmission are referred to as endangered languages. Language endangerment generally occurs in the later stages of language shift, that is, when a speech community moves away from their earlier variety, dialect, or language to a new one or new set thereof (Fishman, 1991).
While the processes of endangerment and extinction have likely been constant throughout the history of human language, the scale and the pace of this loss—whose cumulative effect is the reduction of linguistic diversity—in the modern era appears to be uniquely intense, with up to half or more of the currently estimated 5,000–6,000 languages spoken today expected to be lost within a century or so (Hale et al.
, 1992). Both the nature of this loss and its consequences are complex and involve deep psychosocial factors as much as purely linguistic ones.
Two common reactions to language endangerment include language revitalization and linguistic documentation, both of which present extensive challenges and opportunities for applied linguistics.
The sources of language endangerment are not uniform, but do generally present recurrent themes on both the broader external social/political/economic and the narrower community-internal and individual scales, corresponding in broad strokes to what Grenoble and Whaley (1998) refer to as macro- and micro-factors.
From the macro-factor perspective, language shift can occur from sheer population loss of a speech community, due to war, disease, famine, or rather commonly, economically motivated outmigration, that is, dispersal into a diaspora that makes daily use of a given language no longer practical or meaningful/effective. Demographically stable communities, however, experience language endangerment just as readily when they are induced to shift for other reasons.
Loss of prestige is a very common factor: It can be introduced through schooling, often reinforced by physical or social/emotional punishment of young speakers, or simply as a social contempt expressed in adult society by speakers of the dominant to the minority. As dominant languages are typically those spoken by the socioeconomically dominant, language shift is very often rationalized—both on the part of the speech community itself, or by outsiders—via ideological narratives of economic practicality, or homogeneous national identity.
Hence, while there are exceptions, language endangerment is most typically experienced by minority and socioeconomically marginalized populations. In addition to psychological internalization of the above factors, the internal or microfactor side of language loss has as a primary component the local disruption of the social spaces in which the language has normally been used, and the shrinking of the range of such spaces. As most endangered languages have a primarily oral tradition (or no written tradition at all), full acquisition and rich ? uency depends entirely on personal experience with other speakers.
Reduction of the range of domains in which an individual can be exposed to the language commonly results in a feedback effect: otherwise ? uent speakers who have knowledge or performance gaps are judged as imperfect speakers by more broadly experienced speakers (typically though not exclusively elders), leading the former to avoid situations of language use even more, and so intensify the process of contraction. As the factors affecting transmission are very ? uid, languages can shift from stable to endangered extremely quickly, often within the space of one generation.
For the same reason, endangerment is often not salient even as it happens, as since three coexisting generations of grandparent, parent, and child can represent complete ? uency, intermediate competence, and complete non-speaker status. One still-living full generation of ? uent speakers can and often does give the illusion that the language is not seriously threatened; even more so if the majority of the community are ambivalent or antipathetic with regard to maintaining the language. Language loss is not uniform, either.
During the process of language shift, competence in the language can range from various degrees of ? ency, to “remembered” speaker (full ? uency from childhood but fallen into disuse), to rusty speaker (substantial but limited competence due to an early shift from the threatened language to another), to semi-speaker (characterized by imperfect acquisition of the complete earlier form of the language, due to limited exposure) (Sasse, 1992). From this can also emerge “young people’s languages”: complete but markedly distinct variants of the source language used by younger generations that have been substantially altered by these sorts of incomplete transmission processes (Schmidt, 1985).
Even after a speech community is reduced beyond even one notional native speaker, a language or features thereof can persist: in more or less full lexicogrammatical form as a liturgical or literary language, or both (as in the case of Hebrew, Latin, and Classical Greek, among others), or as a set of rote-memorized ceremonial phraseology, or as features in? uencing the variety of the replacing language(s) now spoken by descendants of the former speech community. The lexical, phonological, and syntactic in? ence of Irish Gaelic on varieties of English now spoken monolingually in Ireland is a frequently cited example. Semantic and pragmatic features of the earlier language too may cross over. Mixed languages may also persist after a community has shifted away from an original contributory language. Michif and Media Lengua—results of contact between French and Cree, and Spanish and Quechua, respectively—for example, have replaced the indigenous source language in some communities; such mixed languages can and do also exist alongside populations continuing to speak their source languages.
Complete language loss itself can be problematicized. The notion of dormant or “sleeping” language has been developed for languages that have experienced complete disruption of natural generation-to-generation transmission, but that persist in substantial enough recorded form to permit the possibility of revival as a useable linguistic instrument (Leonard, 2007).
Wampanoag and Miami represent two (Algonquian) languages currently being actively revived by descendants of the original speech communities, to the extent that children are being raised with the revived language as one of their ? st languages. Israeli Hebrew is perhaps the most famous case of a sleeping language subsequently revived as a full-? edged daily use language. Zuckerman (2009) and Leonard (2007) offer thorough discussions of the relationship between such revived languages and their source(s), particularly the ? rst languages of their revivers. Finally, the application of the terms endangered and extinct have both been called into question as inherently stigmatizing and, particularly when the latter is applied to dormant languages, inaccurate, and disenfranchising (Rinehart, 2006).
The current intensity of language loss can be attributed both to essentially technological factors such as increased mobility (physical, social, and economic), telecommunications, popular media, education, and also to ideological and political factors such as the spread of the notionally homogeneous nation-state and cultural imperialisms of various kinds. Language endangerment is thus strongly connected to other types of sociocultural dislocation. With the loss of a given language also ripple out a host of ancillary losses.
While loss of traditional language need not entail complete loss of traditional culture, language loss is more often than not accompanied by loss of bodies of knowledge traditionally passed on via the language, ranging from the ceremonial/religious, historical, literary/rhetorical, technological, medical, and so on (Harrison, 2007; Evans, 2010); it is often observed that the loss of a language results in the loss of a whole unique worldview implicitly and explicitly encoded in language-speci? c form and usage.
For discussion of how language loss affects and re? cts the broader questions of biocultural/intellectual diversity, see Fishman (1982), Maf? (2001), and Dalby (2003), as well as Harrison (2007) and Evans (2010). Often generational transmission of social norms and values is affected when languages are lost; as is coherent community identity. A traditional language frequently functions as a pervasive and potent marker of membership therein: both emotional and intellectual connections to previous/ancestral generations can be rendered much more tenuous with its loss.
Sheer grief (and at times even shame) at the loss of a cherished part of personal, familial, and community heritage is a situation-speci? c but very common experience, salient and wrenching to its affectees, even as it can be missed or underplayed by strictly materialistic/utilitarian approaches to the role of language in human life. For linguistics and related cognitive sciences, what is lost is the opportunity to investigate the full diversity of human linguistic potential.
This is particularly crucial in the testing of universal claims about possible versus impossible human linguistic systems. Currently endangered and recently extinct languages have all offered unique contributions to the understanding of human language and by extension, human cognition. Damin, an auxiliary language traditionally used among the Lardil of Wellesley Island, North Queensland, Australia, for example, uses several phonetic mechanisms not found in any other known languages (and the only known click systems outside of southern Africa).
It also exhibits an unparalleled intellectual creation: a carefully semantically abstracted lexicon of approximately 200 elements that can express the full range of the everyday Lardil language’s much richer system (Hale, 1998). Many other features of human language which are evidently quite common as possible grammatical options remain under-researched and poorly understood because they are, by historical accident, chie? y only found in languages that are currently endangered/threatened: among others, these include polysynthesis, switch reference, and complex evidential contrasts.
At present there are two frequent active responses to language endangerment (i. e. , beyond simple acceptance): language revitalization and language documentation. Both pose interesting challenges for applied linguistics. At the time of this writing, there is an emergent consensus (though see Newman, 1998, for an alternative view) that it is incumbent upon linguists (and policymakers) to support language revitalization, namely, active efforts to recover and restore an endangered language to active daily use in a speech community (Hinton & Hale, 2001; for introductory handbooks, see Hinton, 2002, and Grenoble & Whaley, 2006).
Simultaneously, an effort has emerged to document as many features of endangered languages as possible before their potential or even likely disappearance. Currently several institutions have been established that speci? cally support language documentation (see Online Resources). While language documentation of course can contribute substantially to language revitalization, the priorities of each do not necessarily overlap completely.
Since unambiguous examples of thoroughly successful language revitalization efforts are still quite rare, focusing on documentation rather than revitalization can, particularly in academic circles, be seen as a more realistic use of limited resources to address language loss (see Bowern & James, 2010, for a challenge to this view). That said, documentation and revitalization efforts more often than not go hand in hand, particularly because endangered language speech communities typically expect documentation (still most often done by outsiders) to contribute substantially to revitalization efforts.
Cite this essay
Endangered Languages. (2016, Dec 10). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/endangered-languages-essay