Killing Language

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Sep 19, 2007

Filed under: Nerd Culture 63 comments

Surprisingly, this story isn’t about the languacide perpetrated every day by semi-literate Halo fans on message boards across the world. It’s also not about similar crimes b cause all th kidz lern 2 type in IM and dont lern 2 spell or punctu8

No, this is about the death of languages besides English. According to this story, the number of languages in the world is shrinking quickly. (Right now there is a language with only one guy left who knows it. When he dies, it’s gone.) Some people estimate the number of living languages to be ~7,000 right now.

I wonder: Are they including Elvish and Klingon in that total?


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63 thoughts on “Killing Language

  1. d6 says:

    So languages are dying?
    Well… I couldn´t care less.

    I wouldn´t mind English being the only language still in use someday.

    It would definetely make a lot of things easier.

  2. Craig says:

    this is not new at all. Languages have been dying out ever since globalization started. I really want to be a German teacher, and learn as many languages as possible, so I’m clearly all for the languages not dying out.

  3. Dave Brown says:

    And there was me reading that exact same article on Al Jazeera, not Fox.

    (insert “Twilight Zone” music here)

    Did you hear about the down-right BRILLIANT idea that someone had–writing Hawaiian using Japanese kanji? Because that endangered language definitely needs an impossible-to-learn writing system.

  4. Will says:

    I just think it’s kind of creepy to think about someone being the only speaker of a given language. I mean, hopefully, he knows OTHER languages, too, but even so…he’s got this entire means of communication, but no one to communicate with.


  5. Bill says:

    Where there’s a political will you can revive a seemingly dead language:

  6. George says:

    Sorry, but Elvish and Klingon aren’t really “live” languages. Neither is Latin. It’s because people don’t use it as their primary language, so it’s not in conversational, everyday use. This means that it doesn’t change unlike a language like English which is constantly changing by adding new words and using rules in different ways. Because of this, Latin, English, and Klingon are all considered “dead” languages. Just like when the last guy who speaks a language dies doesn’t mean that the language is necessarily forgotten completely (if someone got to the language first to write it down), it just means that it’s not in everyday use anymore, so it isn’t changing and thus “dead”.

  7. Malachite says:

    Right, it’s an old phenomenon, but the point is it’s getting quicker and quicker. What’s more, less and less people seem to be able to speak their own langage correctly! In France, some teenagers don’t speak french anymore in their everyday life, they just mixe ugly french words and hollywood english. So yes, old primitive langages are dying because nobody speaks them anymore, but most european langages, even true english, are dying because of carelesness… (by the way, sorry if my english is to bad)

  8. Marmot says:

    It might be a loss (particularly in poetry/art sense), but it is a natural thing. I never found anything more ridiculous than unnatural measures to “protect” one’s language like synchronisation. Big countries like Germany, France, Italy, smaller ones like Serbia (my neighbour)… they all synchronize everything with the intention of forcing people to speak their language. Of course, it tends to fail in an epic fashion.

    On the other hand, those crying about their langauges dying and being replaced by english need to remember that same could be said of english. Who now speaks english as intended? It could rather be divided into dozens of dialects, being massacred across the globe as localisms are invented. But all in all, it’s natural – maybe it should be observed, but not mourned over.

  9. Ben says:

    Languages evolve, it’s what they do. And just like the natural selction of organisms, sometimes languages die out, and sometimes they mutate. It’s natural.

  10. Christopher says:

    I agree, the loss of languages isn’t a problem in the grand scheme of things. It’s only natural that people will speak whatever they are comfortable with. Might as well try and stop evolution. I only hope that writing like u r texting sum1 duzn’t becum a normal, acceptable language (see, I can’t even do it right). Can you imagine people of the future actually writing books like that?


  11. Carl the Bold says:

    Aye, Ben! Ye be right as rain! Tis the natural way o’ things that some die and some new ones be born to take their place. Tis a good thing for Elvish and Klingonese–nay! Tis a good thing for us all. Harrgh!!!!

  12. BlueFaeMoon says:

    Shiver me timbers! Don’t ye be knowing t’day is Talk Like a Pirate Day?

    Carl the Bold be knowing it, me thinks. Yo ho, matey!

  13. kamagurka says:

    Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter much to me. Language is a communication tool. The tools that work for something stay, the rest dies out.
    That said, a number of languages are being or have been killed off by governments that discourage their use, which is unnatural and usually results in cultural death or atrophy of the people concerned.

  14. Marmot says:

    I’ve typed out a nice pirate-themed post on one forum today but I’ve totally forgotten to apply the same to my comment here. So BlueFaeMoon…arrrr, matey!

    Quote of the day:


  15. Nic says:

    I wonder how long it will take for all the languages to conglomerate into one, common tongue? I reckon hundreds, perhaps thousands of years down the track, it’d be interesting to hear what it sounded like.

    And a question to everyone who knows- have there been any dead languages that have been revived through study and people trying to preserve the past?

    Also, are the different sign languages taken into account in regards to the tally?

  16. Elton says:

    Languages aren’t just a set of different words, they encode a huge amount of cultural information. The idioms embedded in foreign languages tell you a lot about how the history and culture of the societies that used them. (And sometimes they’re damn funny — there’s an expression in Dutch that literally says “You’re sitting with the fried pears”.)

    That said, I don’t think English-speakers or anyone else should feel guilty if obscure languages die out. It just would be nice if linguists & historians get a chance to interview the last few native speakers of dying languages so the subtleties can be recorded and studied in the future.

  17. Shamus says:

    Ben writed: Languages evolve, it's what they do. And just like the natural selction of organisms, sometimes languages die out, and sometimes they mutate. It's natural.

    That’s pretty much my take on this as well. What I find interesting is that English isn’t really a successful language – it’s a normal language attached to an exceptionally successful culture. When judged by bandwidth (how quickly the langauge communicates) useability (how easy it is to learn the language properly) and accuracy, English is (I’m told) surpassed by many others.

  18. Alexis says:

    Linguicide. Sorry for nitpicking but I feel justified given the subject.

    leet is contemporary slang, serving the same purpose slang always has – forming a sense of closed community. Those who use it well identify themselves as members, those who react against it identify themselves as outsiders. Those who misuse it trying to be “down with the kids” get pilloried. It’s socially efficient.

    It works as military slang too, we use all sorts of shorthand in Warcraft simply because it’s realtime and the linguistic overhead of proper English is too high. Personally I hate “l8r” et al because the gain is minimal, but the gain from an exchange such as “r? mana. k. r” is worthwhile.

    Even when there’s no need for exclusion or efficiency, leet still has a place in conveying the stereotype. “i r nuub” is more colourful than simply “oops”. “OMG GEIF!!1!” expresses sarcasm (usually >.>) which is extremely hard to accurately convey just through text.

    I’m no expert, but AIUI a lot of the restrictions included in a language are effectively checks and balances to prevent corruption. With poor transport and nonexistent comm tech, languages needed these to allow people from opposite ends of a country to get past the dialect. In infomatics terms, grammar serves as parity bits. The ‘global society’ and social bandwidth we now have available mean that grammar and speeling feel more and more like unnecessary overhead.

    Apologies for ranting on your blog Shamus. I hope you don’t interpret this as any kind of attack, I hope I’ve raised your estimation of leetspeak as a social factor. It’s evocative, concise and helps form trust networks.

  19. Shamus says:

    Alexis: That is facinating.

  20. fefe says:

    Frankly, you forgot that ‘elvish’ is devided into sindarin and quenya, isn’t it? Sure languages are dynamic and the only thing you can do about is making your people morrons, like it happens in germany.

  21. Germelia says:

    Elton wrote: “You're sitting with the fried pears”

    Haha, I love that one. I always imagine myself sitting with boiled pears though, for some reason.

  22. onosson says:

    As someone studying linguistics right now, I must say that to a linguist the value in having the variety of languages that exist in the world is that they each can tell us something about the capacity of the human mind (and of the biology that enables it). Together, they paint a picture of which each individual language is only a small part. If the number of languages drops in half (as I believe it is forecasted to do in the near future), then we lose a great deal of information about the POSSIBILITIES that we as humans are capable of. The more homogeneous the linguistic situation in the world becomes, the more limited our knowledge about it also becomes.

    Just my $.02 (Canadian, right now almost same in $U.S.)

  23. Dan says:

    I have killed the wanguage…with my spear and magic helmet!

    Remember the last time the world had one language…we ended up trying to build a tower in worship of Marduk. Had our ancestors succeeded all of us would be droning minions, united from all parts of the globe for a single purpose, babbling incessantly…


  24. Rebecca says:

    I agree, it’s “linguacide.”

    Having a written form of the language helps to preserve it! So study your spelling! So says I, the English major!

  25. Shamus says:

    Did you just correct my spelling on a made-up word?

  26. Alexis says:

    Wikiality says I’m right:

    Be careful not to get confused with linguinicide, the heinous murder of noodles.

    Elton: I have to agree about the death of language. A little sad, maybe slightly emo, but the inevitable way of the world. Also, WIN re: pears!

    Shamus: re: linguistic efficiency of English, AIUI where English wins is vocabulary. We have a LOT of words, not least because we keep nickin ’em off everyone else. It doesn’t necessarily help our accuracy since not everyone agrees on the most subtle nuances, but it makes it more fun to use (cf heinous, I got to say reprehensible today as well!)

    onossan: This way lies lojban. The only problem being that you have to speak to people who learnt lojban.

  27. onosson says:


    I think Shamus was using his made-up word to refer to the gobbledygook in the Halo link, and not in reference to language death.

    Also, don’t forget that those who speak all these dying languages are perfectly capable of doing all of us English speakers (and other major languages) the favour of learning OUR language… in fact, they have done this so well and so often, that we kind of take it for granted. My great-great grandparents certainly didn’t speak any English, for example.

  28. Shamus says:

    Alexis: So, you’re correcting the word I made up for humorous effect, and citing Wikipedia as an example?


  29. Sir Pedant says:

    Why am I the first person to mention this?

    Think further than the loss of a minor language as an ease to communication. If you lose a language, you lose not only words, but also a way of thought. You lose imagery, myths, legends. You lose a culture – language and culture are bound far more strongly than words describing events. You can (if some linguistic theories are sound) lose insights into how the brain learns and adapts. It’s more than just words.

    Should these languages be forced to continue? No, I agree, evolution will handle that just fine on its own. Preservation, however, is worth fighting for.

    ‘Er, boss? Yeah, we found some… like… fossils near where we’re gonna-‘

    ‘Blast it, level it, lay the asphalt. We need that mall’.

  30. Sir Pedant says:

    … and I’m not the first person to mention this. Apologies, onosson, I missed your comment.

  31. Chris Curran, The Crazy Klingon Chainmailler says:

    i wish more people would be open minded to accept Klingon as a proper language. It’s constantly changing and growing. i don’t consider it to be dead. not yet at least. It’s not a good day for a language to die!

  32. onosson says:

    Well, more people should be mentioning it. In fact, there are some who study language who believe that ‘communication’ is not even the main purpose of language at all.

    Think about that one for a while…

  33. Doug Sundseth says:

    “You lose imagery, myths, legends.”

    Is there a shortage I wasn’t told about? I’m sure that will be news to the writers and publishers in all the other languages in the world.

    Yes, there is a value to every random utterance. There’s also a cost associated with learning to understand those utterances. When the cost to benefit ratio is too high, there is a net value to abandoning that language; hence language death.

    In addition, there’s a huge network advantage to speaking a language also spoken by others, and that advantage rises as the number (and percentage) of the population speaking the same language rises. Contrary to some peoples’ opinions, there’s really nothing you can’t say in any robust language (though some languages are more efficient at certain concepts than others).

    If you want languages for their own sake, they’re easy enough to create. (See, for instance, Fly; be free.

  34. Clyde says:

    I agree with Alexis. English is a marvelous language because we have such a large vocabulary to work with — more tools in the toolbox than most other languages, because we have so many root sources: Anglo-Saxon Germanic, Latin from the Church, Old Norse from the Vikings, Norman French, and those were just from the period before we made it off the home island. Throw in scholarly Greek and then steal (and adapt) every word that’s not nailed down whenever you come into contact with another culture, and you have English. We’re also fortunate to have the Roman alphabet, which is comparatively simple; we don’t have to learn hundreds of ideograms like the Chinese do, for instance. But then, the writing systems in some of those Asian languages were deliberately difficult, so as to keep literacy the prerogative of the upper classes.

  35. Sartorius says:

    And a question to everyone who knows- have there been any dead languages that have been revived through study and people trying to preserve the past?

    It would not be correct to say that any of these were “dead” languages in the sense of being absolutely extinct, but Welsh, Irish Gaelic, and Hebrew were certainly brought back into use (or given a significant boost of support) as spoken languages in modern times.

  36. Mitch H. says:

    Pfft. Excuse me for not caring about the three thousand or so languages which are the almost-individual cultural heritage of, what, thirty thousand nerfherders on the fringes of real cultures? I’m faintly surprised that so many have survived into the twenty-first century. If those representatives of each microculture can’t tackle their own progeny or neighbors’ progeny & pass on the allegedly precious and vital lessons of their endangered languages, then I could give a damn.

    I’m willing to bet that well over two thousand of these “endangered languages” are dialects of each other, like the alleged languages “Venetian” “Ligurian”, “Champenois”, and that swarm of Sardinian and Corsican dialects. At least most of those can muster entire villages for their microcultures. Once you’re down to a half-dozen people, they don’t have traditions, they have familial habits.

    Once you get down to a single person, that’s not a culture, that’s a crank muttering to himself.

    As for this business of an Indian reservation with thirty languages – bollocks. That’s like looking at the Stone Valley Amish and calling them thirty different sects. No, it’s just a bunch of inbred morons who refuse to break bread with their second cousins because of their great-uncle having been shunned by their great-grandparents over the use of a butter churn or some damn fool thing.

  37. Browncoat says:

    An adolescent perspective:

    My favorite part of Google is that you can change the language it appears in. I like Bork! Bork!, Klingon, and Elmer Fudd the best. I wrote them an email and suggested they add “Pirate”, but so far, no dice. If only thousands of people would send them emails of a similar nature. . .

  38. Eric J says:

    It’s a tragedy that some of those beautiful, poetic languages die out while COBOL clings to life.

  39. Sir Pedant says:

    Doug Sundseth Says:
    > “You lose imagery, myths, legends.”
    > Is there a shortage I wasn't told about? I'm sure that will
    > be news to the writers and publishers in all the other
    > languages in the world.

    > Yes, there is a value to every random utterance. There's
    > also a cost associated with learning to understand those
    > utterances. When the cost to benefit ratio is too high,
    > there is a net value to abandoning that language; hence
    > language death.

    No, you misunderstand me.

    I’m not arguing for continuance (unless as part of the process of study). I’m arguing for preservation.

    As for the shortage that I didn’t mention : Do you believe we (as a global culture, or more specifically native English-speaking countries) have learned or gained nothing from the study of dead languages such as ancient glyphs and cuneiforms, or ancient Greek, or Latin?

    If the only means of learning about a culture is the language, and we cannot understand – and can never understand because we neglected to preserve or study – that language, as I said before, we’ve lost more than words.

  40. Nick says:

    Which Elvish? Quendi, Sindarin, or the tongue of Valinor? See, Tolkien added disproportionately to that count. Most people don’t even come up with *one.*

    As for the loss of languages: “dead” languages are not gone. If we have translations or transliterations, we can eventually decipher the meaning. Still, it is sad to see globalization have this sort of effect, even if it is largely unavoidable.

  41. Mitch H. says:

    If the only means of learning about a culture is the language, and we cannot understand – and can never understand because we neglected to preserve or study – that language, as I said before, we've lost more than words.

    There comes a point where a paired language & culture isn’t representing much more than a single extended family. At that point, we’re talking about the linguistic/cultural equivalent of genealogy. Have you ever spent much time in the company of a fanatic genealogist, one fascinated by her own ancestry, to the point of talking about nothing except the details of eighteenth century land deeds, wills, and bequests of some great-great-great-aunt from Upper East Hicksville?

    If it hasn’t been written down, then five will get you four that it’s a boring culture, a core indistinguishable from every other hunter-gatherer microculture in its shared environment, and details consisting mainly of differing ancestry lists and slight changes in constellations of superstitions and folkways. If you’re lucky, then there’s some interesting folkway that isn’t too much like dozens elsewhere, but I doubt anyone other than a specialist would be able to explain the subtlety involved.

    There’s a reason that Hellene-style syncretism works. It’s because cultures tend to blur together at the margins. Archetypes work, because cultures have points of convergence. Not to the extent of Campbell’s Hero-with-a-Thousand-Faces, no, but your average mythos will have a Coyote in it somewhere, will feature dynamics clearly modeled on the culture’s family structure, and probably will have a world-flood of some sort.

    I’d be greatly surprised if you could find even a single Sequoia among the carriers of the three thousand dying languages. More likely, we’re talking about ten thousand quiet, marginal bores, about five thousand terminal drunks, several thousand trained linguists playing technical games with memorized pet dialects, and a couple thousand would-be shamans wondering what happened to their tribes.

    I don’t know, maybe *you* don’t find would-be shamans as boring as I do.

    Maybe you read other people’s genealogies for fun….

  42. Tom says:

    I once had this same discussion with my college roommate. I argued that it didn’t matter (may the best language win); he argued that with the languages go the diversity and variation that leads to change and innovation.

    Fifteen years on, I have to say that experience and knowledge have radically changed my opinion; onosson and Sir Pedant make excellent points. The variation (and overlap) between languages tells us something about the structure of our brains (and, by extension, the restrictions that culture place on what we can think). At the same time, language and culture strongly influence how we structure our thoughts, and therefore how we approach problems. The fewer languages there are, the more we are subject to a sort of global “group think” phenomenon.

  43. Marmot says:

    The different way of thought and culture is something I always wrap into any careful opinions of discussing langu…len…languicide…whatever. You see the results :)

  44. Huckleberry says:

    “OMG GEIF!!1!” expresses sarcasm (usually >.>)

    Ok, so I need to out myself as a complete noob here: what does “GEIF” stand for?! *really curious*

  45. Sir Pedant says:

    > Have you ever spent much time in the company of a fanatic
    > genealogist, one fascinated by her own ancestry, […]

    Fanatics and extremists tend not to be representative of the groups of which they are members.

    > There comes a point where a paired language & culture isn't
    > representing much more than a single extended family.

    Excellent point, and one I’m trying to make. If we leave analysis of languages until they are corrupted by imperfect memory, or by a small sample space, then already a lot of data has been lost. I think this strengthens the case for earlier rather than later study.

    > There's a reason that Hellene-style syncretism works. It's
    > because cultures tend to blur together at the margins.

    I think you’re perhaps conflating cause with effect. Yes, cultures merge, but largely as a result of warfare or some other means of subsumption. History is written by the winners, etc.

    Your point about common myths and legends, again, reinforces my point. Without learning about the cultures, or their lanuages, we won’t know /why/ there are common threads. Is it influence from a neighbouring tribe? Independent invention? Inheritance from an even older culture?

    > I'd be greatly surprised if you could find even a single
    > Sequoia among the carriers of the three thousand dying
    > languages.

    I agree, we probably won’t. Isn’t that our job now?

    > I don't know, maybe *you* don't find would-be shamans as
    > boring as I do.
    > Maybe you read other people's genealogies for fun….

    I find a lot of things boring. Just because I don’t find value in something, does that mean there is no value in it? Or maybe, just because I don’t value something now, how do I know I won’t find it important in the future?

    You are not the arbiter of all that is important.

  46. icekatze says:

    hi hi

    I hope at least that these scientists can record how the languages sounded and how they worked so that they’re not lost forever. That nobody bothers to learn and speak them fluently can be a shame in some cases, but language is a living thing and its not necessarily a bad thing.

    A language is a work of art that’s been produced by generations of different people all contributing their small piece. If suddenly nobody wanted to see the Mona Lisa, I can understand removing it from display, but not taking it out back and burning it.

  47. Akatsukami says:

    Still, it is sad to see globalization have this sort of effect, even if it is largely unavoidable.

    Tartessian, Iberian, and Etruscan vanished back in the days when culture was literally spread at swordpoint. And we don’t know how many local tongues were snuffed by the spread of Sanskrit, Nahuatl, or Xhosa.

    Unless we re-define “globalization” to mean “anytime someone gets out of the line-of-sight of the hut that he was born in”, globalization has nothing to do with it.

  48. Yunt says:

    Too many posts to run through the whole thing but…

    The real sad part of this is that language in very real ways dictates thought. It has been theorized that the reason most of us don’t have access to our pre-verbal memories is because we’ve forgotten the “baby language” they were encoded in. You probably have memories right up to the point where they were being stored in your current language and some spotty stuff slightly before that but there’s no reason to believe that you were incapable of retaining memories from a week before the first you can recall now.

    Similarly, the language you speak now shapes your psychology in fairly deep ways. The Inuit are said to have some 20+ words for “snow”. These are, as I understand it with my English-fed brain, different kinds of snow. A common response to this for most people is “I didn’t know there were that many kinds of snow to have words for!” but they might have it backwards. You might not recognize “a little slushy but walkable snow” as being distinct from “very slushy and better change my boots snow” because you didn’t have a ready word to describe the thing when you first discovered it.

    We have words like ennui which don’t translate well and in English our solution is generally to adopt such words. It doesn’t mean listless or bored but it *almost* means those things. Do English speakers feel ennui before they properly grok the term? Grok itself is a made-up word which almost means “understand” but is more holistic in it’s implication and again, doesn’t translate well.

    My point being, the less languages, the less words leads to less ideas and less we are able to communicate with each other and perhaps even with ourselves about the world. Losing a word often enough implies a loss of the concept it signified.

  49. A different Dan says:

    I’m surprised no one’s brought out the quote yet. You know, the one about borrowed vocab. It’s only partially applicable, but I like to quote it in its entirety, since few people even know who it’s by.

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. English doesn’t borrow words; it’s been known on occasion to chase languages down alleyways, knock them unconscious, and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
    –James Nicoll

    There are two distinct issues here, to my eye. One is the evolution of language. Yes, Virginia, language rules are a descriptive system rather than a proscriptive one. Yes, some day “santorum” will be a word in a standard dictionary (okay, maybe not, but wouldn’t that be funny?). That is, if we may call it that, “natural” linguistic evolution.

    Okay, now let’s cut all this crap about Darwinian processes being applied to the competition of languages.

    A language does not, *can not*, exist in a vacuum. It is as much a social and cultural construct as it is an information transfer vehicle. Each word has more than just the strict, dictionary meaning; it also has associations formed based on similarity of spelling, phonetic proximity and homonyms, to name but a few. Those associations are fluid, yes, but much in the same way that pitch is — it takes decades or longer for any significant drift to occur.

    I’m not advocating that we all abandon the idea of a common tongue, but please, do remember that when a language is lost, much more becomes inaccessible than just a different set of noises used to describe things.

  50. Paul says:

    This post reminded me of a website I came across by accident a few years ago.

  51. Davesnot says:

    Lsij wizi ia’sib iow!! kwfsobzllo W tgubj tagw a kabvgyage scgiykw bq zinwtgubg tgaw us cibstabtkt cgabgubg. But that’s just my btiaus,

  52. Darth says:

    In relation to the FOX article: The are so many different languages when it comes to the Aboriginies because they tend to be linked to tribes and/or regions.

    Similar situation in India where there are so many different languages (and on top of that numerous dialects!).

    Unfortunately, it does seem that the spread of a language will heavily depend on the existence of the people from where it originated i.e. the tribe. Due to the population of the world constantly increasing, as well an increased ability to migrate from region to region across the globe, certain languages will – unfortunately – slowly disappear due to lack of “dominance”.

    In all likelihood you will probably see the most common languages spoken across the globe to be English, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Hindi (maybe Tamil as well). This is due, in part, to colonialism as well as the economic standing of countries who speak these languages.

  53. Allan says:

    “the languacide perpetrated every day by semi-literate Halo fans”

    This statement isn’t fair, just because some idiots like Halo doesn’t mean the rest of us are idiots too. You got pretty offeneded when some person said he was dissapointed you were another of those “rabid homeschooling creationists” with “brains of crap”. I know you probably don’t mean it, and video games vs religous beliefs don’t compare, but I’m just tired of people trying to lump me into the “Moron” category just because I happen to like a particular game, and seeing it come from someone who definately isn’t a rabid moron with brains of crap but who definately is a sensible, reasonable and intelligent adult just urged me to say that.

  54. Smileyfax says:

    A few people have mentioned the possibility of the emergence of a single global langauge. Frankly, I find that a bit disturbing. In 1984, Big Brother consolidated language smaller and smaller, restricting thought by limiting the means to communicate it.

    For that reason alone, I endorse the preservation of as many languages as possible.

  55. Shamus says:

    Allen: If you follow the link you’ll see that I did indeed allow for non-idiot Halo fans. I don’t think Halo fans are idiots. I think that ones that ARE idiots are a very special breed of idiot.

  56. Marijana says:

    George Says:
    September 19th, 2007 at 7:40 am
    Sorry, but Elvish and Klingon aren't really “live” languages.

    So, they are un-dead languages? Just like Latin, or Greek
    And then you have those that really died out and nobody knows or cares – those are the dead dead languages? :-/

    But English is global language not because it is so superior, but because it’s culture is now global. Same happened to Latin. And if/when things change maybe some new language will become global.

    As for the dying out of small languages, it happens all the time, ever since there was humanity.
    It doesn’t really effect us, we don’t have to care, but the real loss is all the beauty and poetry and philosophic thoughts nobody will now know or have access to. They weren’t preserved, noted down and now never will. They weren’t translated or shared, and never will.

  57. A different Dan says:

    Marijana, they’re stillborn languages :)

  58. roxysteve says:

    Interesting reading, both the article and the responses. Thanks, everyone.

    [Cobol jokes: Non-programmers skip section]

    Eric J Says:
    It's a tragedy that some of those beautiful, poetic languages die out while COBOL clings to life.

    That is because, despite the perplexing culture of hate that it has engendered in the knee-jerk, back-parroting masses with Batchelor’s degrees in Computer Science, Cobol does what it does exceedingly well.

    The real tragedy is that when some of the financial enterprises bought into the great “C” snow-job in the mid-to-late 80s, they didn’t know that the people rewriting the software would have such contempt for the old stuff that they would not seek to understand why it did what it did the way it did it.

    And that is why the 15 year old “C” software suites very often contain a fairly basic programmer error that the old, disrespected Cobol had spec’d out of the language (unless you were really, really determined to get it wrong) in 1955. Frankly, what with the froofaraw that has surrounded the big commercial “C” rollout lobby, I’m surprised more programmer-analysists didn’t understand the basic problem with using binary floating point numbers to represent currency, a decimal fixed point paradigm. I guess it never came up on the syllabus. Oh well. It’s only your interest and currenct arbitrage loss that is at stake. No doubt they can fix that when Eiffel becomes the Next Big Thing. (*grinning big*).

    [English as the Universal Language]

    The reason (American) English has become such a lingua franca can be put down to one thing really – the development of the computer. Back in the 70s CDC (who made Cray supercomputers) had noted that American English was becoming a common international business language because all the manuals and all the man-sensible language verbs were written in US English. Indutrialised nations across the world were being forced into using it just to stay technologically competetive. IBM, CDC and Sperry salesmen might speak German, French, Italian, Spanish and so on, but the computers they were selling emphatically did not (at first).

    The explosion of the Internet into every corner of the comms-connected world has pushed this trend to astronomical proportions. I know this because at one time I was involved with the New York Esperanto Association and they, via ELNA and similar worldwide organisations, track such things.

    [The Culture Issue]

    I’m not sure a culture can be said to exist hand-in-glove with a single language. If the ancient Egyptians had lived in a culture with only one language we’d never have figured out their graffiti. That same example would seem to suggest that a lost culture can be resurrected by anyone who truly cares about it. Indeed, the scholars working on understanding how the ancient Egyptians went about life probably outnumber those interested by the same culture now, suggesting that a dead culture may actually be “worth more” than a currently vibrant one, at least to accademia.

    I would certainly agree that a culture warps a language. There is no more accessible example than US/UK English.

    [The Loss]

    It would be interesting to find out how many of those decrying the loss of languages actually speak more than one, and therefore have more than an inetllectual interest in the phenomenon. After all, if everyone who has bemoaned the language with only one speaker had instead spent some time learning that language, it wouldn’t have only one speaker.

    [Caveats aka Weasel Clauses]

    I am fluent only in English these days. There was a time that was not the entire picture.

    I have over 35 years experience with computers, knowledge of all the coding languages I mention and know whereof I speak despite being older than air. Over the years I’ve come to understand that a computer language is just a tool, and so are some of the people that use them.

    I’ve got immediate family all over the world. Some of them are fluent in multiple languages. Some still speak to me.

    My Esperanto Club dues are unpayed for the last four years. They keep dunning me. In English.


  59. Mr. Son says:

    The real sad part of this is that language in very real ways dictates thought.

    Not for everyone. My thoughts are usually not in language at all. I have a spacial mindset, which thinks in shapes and positions and such. I have to translate most of what comes out of my head into words, and often get frustrated because English simply does not have the words for some of my thoughts. And English is my first (and only, at the moment) language.

  60. Lo'oris says:

    here in Italy many dialects are spoken mostly by old people…

  61. Alexis says:

    goddamn antispam word deleted my post >:(

    Shamus: Wikiality. geddit?

    Huckleberry: OMG -> Oh my Gosh. GEIF -> GIFE -> GIVE. Together, “may I have it?”. With connotations of must-have.

    Mr. Son: please elaborate, sounds fascinating.

  62. Þorsteinn says:

    As an inhabitant of an island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean (Iceland), I have to learn a variety of languages if I intend to be truly a part of the world at large. My native language, Icelandic, is a language that has for some strange reason survived for thousand years and is still spoken today. I am proud of knowing it, it is something only 300.000 other people in the world can do.

    Now, Icelanders are always growing more populous. Yet this is a language that is listed as an endangered language, simply because we’re so few. Now there is a great fear in my country that the language is about to die out because of English influence. This threat is very real. Everything on TV, everything on the computer, every storefront and product label is in English. Kids are starting to play in American, twangy TV-English. American cultural dominance, people – this is it. There is nothing left of Icelandic culture except for the language and some old books.

    In about 1200 – 1300 AD some illustrious Icelanders wrote books on calf-skin, the Sagas. These works of art are the greatest examples of medieval literature in existence. They are incredible, and they are written in just about the same language I speak daily. But if my language gets crushed under the avalanche, first of all, I will not be an Icelander anymore, but a kind of homeless American in the middle of the Atlantic. Secondly, those books will not be understood anymore. Their importance will be forgotten and their immediacy lost, because they will be read in a clumsy English translation. Our knowledge of the art and the mindset of the Middle Ages will be diminished.

    Ah, I am rambling on. But please, understand that this is very real. This is not just about some indiginous dialects dying – this is happening all over Europe, and always getting worse. I would urge anyone who reads this to study languages, a lot of them. You would be contributing enormously, because the European languages and cultures simply need more speakers. I know Icelandic, English, Danish, German, Latin, Ancient Greek and some Russian and I hope to add to it, it is the least I can do.

  63. Bobcat says:

    Coming in late on the discussion, but there is one point to make: Latin isn’t as dead as it might seem. A ‘dead’ language is one which is not used by anyone for casual conversation and as such, never changes. But since it’s used daily in the Vatican, they’ve actually had to introduce new latin terms for such things as ‘cell phone’, ‘fax machine’, and ‘personal computer’.

    There is of couse the quote from James Nicoll:

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

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