Vanishing Languages

Every week, more of the world’s languages fall silent.
When we lose a language, we’re losing more than words, says Julie Tetel Andresen.

Andresen describes the world’s shrinking pool of languages.

Over the millennia, some 7,000 human languages evolved around the world, offering 7,000 vantage points on views of what it is to be a human living on planet Earth. Now that number is shrinking. About every two weeks, another language goes extinct, says linguist Julie Tetel Andresen.

That alarms Andresen, professor of English and chair of linguistics at Duke, who has taught at the university since 1986.

“Language loss has been going on gradually for the last 400 or 500 years,“ Andresen said. “But in the last twenty years, it has been lightning fast with the spread of globalization.”

“Languages tells us about our biology, our sociology, our environment.”

Andresen and co-author Phillip Carter describe the world’s shrinking pool of languages in their forthcoming book “Languages in the World: How History, Culture and Politics Shape Language,” due out next fall. The book also takes a stand against language extinction: The authors are donating all profits to the Endangered Language Fund, which works to preserve threatened languages.

When a language dies, we lose practical knowledge such as information about specific flora and fauna, Andresen said. And that’s not all.

“Languages tells us about our biology, our sociology, our environment,” Andresen said. “They are also systems of thought.

“Linguist Edward Sapir has this beautiful phrase, ‘single Algonkin words are like tiny imagist poems.’ Languages are worldviews, and when we lose a language, we lose that worldview.”

For the Love of Language

Andresen speaks five languages herself: English, French, German, Romanian and Vietnamese, which she learned during a recent semester off from teaching. She picked up some Mongolian during a six-week stint in that country.

Anyone who spends her vacation learning a new language is clearly smitten with words. In fact, Andresen fell for languages early during her years growing up in suburban Chicago. As a girl of five, she made up words for fun, sharing the new ones each night with her sister.

“Then I discovered there were foreign languages where the words were already made up and there’s a whole world of them,” she said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Oh man this is great.’ I couldn’t believe there was a world with all these different languages and all I had to do was go learn them.”

Andresen, who earned her undergraduate degree at Duke, has since lived for extended periods in Germany and France, as well as Vietnam. She spends most of the year in Durham, but keeps her Romanian in good shape by spending summers in that country. She loves to write essays in foreign languages, viewing them the way she once viewed piano scales, as warm-up exercises and a kind of mental calisthenics.

In addition to her academic writing, she writes prolifically as a romance novelist. She has published 22 romance titles, including historical romances and “time-slip” novels where the action takes place over two different eras.

Language Loss Hot Spots

Andresen explains why languages matter.

Andresen points out that languages often contain specialized knowledge about particular environments and lifestyles. For instance, the Gugu-Yaway of Australia, expert hunters, include whistles and animal sounds in their vocabulary, while the Cherokee language describes particular flora.

“Humans are wonderful observers of their environments,” Andresen said. “The Cherokee understanding of the medicinal value of plants is richly detailed in the language.”

A thick band of threatened languages clusters around the equator, Andresen said. Other language loss hot spots include Oklahoma, the Pacific Northwest, Siberia and Australia, locales that are also losing biodiversity.

“…if you look back over time, people who speak one language are the exception.”

In those various places, globalization hastens the death of local languages in several ways, she said. Popular culture transports hip-hop music and other western creations to Mongolia, Malaysia and beyond. And as the world’s economies knit together more tightly, major languages such as English offer paths to prosperity. For instance, when English-speaking tourists come to a remote village, locals understandably want to learn English in order to sell their wares, Andresen said.

Andresen acknowledges that learning international languages connects a culture to the wider world and may have economic benefits. However, she says learning a “power language” needn’t mean abandoning one’s original tongue.

“You can have both,” Andresen said. “In fact, if you look back over time, people who speak one language are the exception.

“It’s not unusual in Africa for someone to know five languages. Knowing more than one language has been the norm throughout human history.”

Saving Dying Languages

Andresen discusses language revival efforts around the world.

Andresen isn’t alone in her concern about dying languages. Language revival efforts are popping up around the world. In Hawaii, for instance, special schools called “language nests” teach young children Hawaiian beginning in infancy. The Ojibwe, the Cherokee and many other peoples have also mounted language revival efforts.

The new revival attempts borrow from successful campaigns such as the resurrection of the Maori language in New Zealand. They also draw inspiration from the most successful language revival story of all, the resuscitation of spoken Hebrew.

“The poster child for language revival is modern Hebrew,” Andresen said. “Today we have more than 7 million speakers of conversational Hebrew where 150 years ago there were zero.”

“Every language has a different pattern.”

Technology, which hastened language disappearance, is now assisting language revival. For instance, a California software nonprofit called the Unicode Consortium has made fonts available for Hawaiian and other lesser-known languages, so that speakers can text and tweet in their native tongues, Andresen said.

“The revival efforts are thrilling,“ she said. “It’s just beginning. But I have a lot of hope for it.”

If revival efforts continue to spread, perhaps linguists’ starkest predictions won't come true. Some linguists predict the world’s rich store of languages will be cut in half in a hundred years. Others, though, suggest the loss will be far worse – that the number of human languages could drop from 7,000 to a few hundred by the close of the century.

To Andresen, it’s hard to fathom such a loss. Many people use language without stopping to examine it, as if languages were transparent panes of glass. When Andresen looks at a language, she sees a collective work of art created over generations, in one continuous weave.

“Every language has a different pattern,” Andresen said. “It’s like this beautiful lace. When you lose a language, you cut people off from all this beautiful lace that their ancestors provided for them.

“When we lose a language, we cut ourselves off from that history.”

“Vanishing Languages” is a project of Duke University’s Office of News and Communications. It was reported and written by Alison Jones with videography by Carson Mataxis, design by Jonathan Lee and editing by David Jarmul.

It is the second installment in the “Taking Note” series, which features profiles of Duke humanities faculty.

© Duke Today, May 11, 2015