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What Is Language Death?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Language death is the steady decline in use of a certain language to the point where no native speakers remain. This type of language extinction is a linguistic phenomena that can have several causes, such as colonialism or intermingling among speakers of different languages. A certain ethnic group's primary regional language can be abandoned gradually as many group members learn and use a different language in day-to-day life. Language death can also result from a nation's shift from one language to another for use in areas such as government or commerce. A verifiable case of language extinction is often an area of interest to some scholars who study issues such as linguistic imperialism and globalization.

Glottophagy and linguicide are terms occasionally assigned to language death that is imposed on a population of speakers involuntarily. This kind of sudden and radical language shift can happen when one ethnic group settles and colonizes another country usually for economic opportunities. Native inhabitants of a colonized nation are frequently required to give up their primary language and traditions in order to assimilate with the new arrivals. Some native speakers in this situation choose to voluntarily adopt the colonizers' language in the name of practicality. These circumstances often raise questions of ethnocentrism and linguistic rights.

Some forms of language death can be more gradual due to trends in international exchanges. As certain languages are adopted as the official ones of diplomacy and trade, less common regional languages can diminish in perceived importance. One significant trait of a language in decline is a lack of lessons in the primary native language in schools. Many linguists agree that when the children of a certain country do not learn the native tongue of their ethic origins, that language is at a much higher risk of dying out. This type of linguistic extinction can sometimes lead to reverse trends of language revitalization in a few select cases.

Scholars sometimes point to implications of language death, such as diminished senses of ethnic identity among speakers. Language extinction is considered official when only a small number of fluent speakers remain in the older generations of a certain ethnic group. Attempts to prevent further language death are also sometimes subject to debate. Some language experts stress the importance of preserving cultural identity, while others argue that failure to adopt a more widespread secondary language will hold certain communities back from economic and social progress.

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Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Jan 28, 2012

@feruze-- Latin is actually a tricky one. There is still no consensus on what the state of Latin is. I personally think that it is a dead language because the Latin that is spoken in the Church for example, is not the same as the Latin that was spoken earlier in history.

Language death is natural and it's okay for it to take place. There are groups and organizations that are working to preserve some languages today that are close to becoming extinct. I think the efforts of these groups are useless because language death is inevitable.

By bear78 — On Jan 27, 2012

If no native speakers need to remain for a language to be considered "dead," is a language considered to be "alive" if there is only one speaker in the world?

I don't really understand this concept too well. Some people argue that language death doesn't make too much sense because language is not something that remains the same. Language is changing and evolving all the time.

When I read Shakespeare's poems. for example, that English seems very different and distant from the English that is spoken today. We could probably say that Shakespear's English is dead too since people speak English very differently today.

Similarly, Latin is considered to be a "dead language" but it is still used in religious practices and many other languages have been based on Latin as well. I don't consider Latin to be dead at all.

What do you think?

By burcidi — On Jan 26, 2012

It sounds like India fits the bill for circumstances that can lead to language death. India was colonized and ruled by Britain for over one hundred years. Indians, especially those who worked under the colonial government were required to learn English and English is still the official language in India today.

But language death has not taken place. It's probably because India is a very large country with many languages. The British could not have imposed English on all areas of India due to its size and Indians never stopped speaking their native languages at home. Kids are still taught to read and write in their native languages in school, in addition to learning English.

I don't know what India will look like in the future, but it doesn't appear that language death will take place there at all.

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