What Happens When a Language Dies?

Paroma Basu in New Delhi, India
for National Geographic News
February 26, 2009

ON TV:The Linguists, about endangered languages around the globe, airs in the United States on PBS Thursday, February 26 (check local listings for the time).

India is extraordinary for its linguistic and cultural diversity. According to official estimates, the country is home to at least 400 distinct tongues, but many experts believe the actual number is probably around 700.

But, in a scenario replicated around the globe, many of India's languages are at risk of dying out.

The effects could be culturally devastating. Each language is like a key that can unlock local knowledge about medicinal secrets, ecological wisdom, weather and climate patterns, spiritual attitudes, and artistic and mythological histories.

In rural Indian villages, Hindi or English are in vogue with younger generations, and are often required travelling to larger towns for work.

In big cities, colonization, as well as globalization, has also spurred a switch to English and other popular languages.

A group of linguists working on language revitalization have identified "hotspots" where local tongues are at risk of disappearing. These are places with rich linguistic diversity, but high risk of language extinction due to relatively few remaining speakers and a lack of recordings or texts that would help with language preservation.

In India, the latter is it most pressing, according to David Harrison, a linguistics professor at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College and a member of the Enduring Voices Project—a joint initiative of the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon.

Enduring Voices works with local communities around the world to document and help prevent languages from becoming extinct. Among their tools: sound recordings, digital video, and the internet to connect one speaker with another or a digital dictionary of their language.

"India has this incredible wealth of languages but many have not even been described at a basic level," said Harrison.

Facing Extinction

All through history, languages have naturally ebbed and flowed, rising to prominence before gradually falling from use.

Continued on Next Page >>


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