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What is an Extinct Language?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Most languages spoken in the world today are not static, meaning that they change with the times, may incorporate new words, and steal words from other languages. Language is alive and thriving when the population that speaks it as a primary means of communication remains. When there is no native population of language speakers left, the language is often called a dead or extinct language. Even if there are a few speakers left, but most of the younger population no longer speaks a language, it can be called extinct or moribund.

The label of extinct language doesn’t mean that no one remains who can speak the language. Several languages like Latin and Coptic are used for ceremonial purposes, and people may still learn these languages in school. Typically, no one, except students of Latin, would spend much time communicating solely in it. It is truly like the old poem taught to many Latin students:

    Latin is a language
    As dead as dead can be.
    First it killed the Romans
    And now it’s killing me.

    There are many situations that can create an extinct language. In the case of Latin, it quickly morphed into the many Romance languages spoken today. English derives from its own extinct language, Anglo-Saxon, and from an infusion of French words. Sometimes a language can change so much and so quickly, that even though you can see commonalities between the extinct and the new language, it’s mainly unrecognizable.

    Language extinction may also occur if a natural disaster or genocide destroys a whole population of speakers. Alternately, people may live in areas where two languages are spoken. Gradually one becomes the language of choice while the other dies off. Additionally, an extinct language may occur when people are forced to give up their native language, as is the case with many Native American languages. When tribes were forcibly relocated or where English programs became mandated for Native American children, several important languages were completely killed off.

    When a language is dying or endangered, or even sometimes when it is an extinct language, efforts can be made to revive it. The most successful rescue of a near extinct language is that made by the state of Israel to purposefully create Hebrew as a national language. Sometimes language revival comes from outside the speaking population. The use of Navajo Code Talkers during World War II effectively revived Navajo, thought its speaking population remains small.

    If you’re looking at extinct language lists, you’ll find numerous ones on the Internet. The numbers are staggering. As mentioned above, some of these extinctions result from rapid change of the language to a now different form like modern English, Irish (or Gaelic as it is sometimes referred to), German or French. Others died because other languages were either used by choice, or through force, and in rare cases because of natural disaster or genocide.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon315836 — On Jan 25, 2013

Anybody want to postulate what the English language might look like had the Normans never gained a foothold there?

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 16, 2011


I think that there is such a thing as too much language diversity, though. When there is no way to communicate and trade with a neighboring tribe, this is too much. If every family in the world had their own distinct language, where would we be? We need a common language in order to advance as one.

By dbuckley212 — On Jan 14, 2011

Language diversity shows the immense power of the human mind to think in terms of different words and grammatical functions. To lose this diversity would be to lose pieces of the human mind, in a sense, since cultures all over the world comprise the collective thinking of our species. We should work on maintaining unity in diversity and not try to homogenize the world.

By TrogJoe19 — On Jan 12, 2011

Languages such as Basque point to the fact that there were likely many other similar pre-Indo-European languages in and around the Iberian peninsula before the advent of the Celts, Latins, and Germans. There are a lot of interesting theories surrounding the origins of Basque and what extinct languages might have existed before the ones we know of today.

By Leonidas226 — On Jan 10, 2011

Languages were created as fast as they were destroyed when the earth was larger. People lived in relative isolation from the rest of the world, in conflict with neighboring tribes which usually spoke similar languages. Today, vastly different societies converge and the large English culture has the potential to draw people from smaller cultures at a rate which makes languages disappear at a much higher rate than new ones can evolve. In some ways, it is exciting to see the world bridged with a common language, but sad that many people are allowing their cultures to be assimilated.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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