In a previous article, we said that language is a living organism. It gets born, it grows and it develops — as does the society in which it is spoken.
Languages change over time in order to meet the informational demands of their speakers and adapt to their zeitgeist, taking in and new words or seeing them made up. Much like people, who live in a society and have to interact with others in order to survive, languages come into contact with other languages. This results in not just a sharing of loanwords, but in totally new means of conveying information. Synthetic languages develop analytical mechanisms (ie, using prepositions like with instead of having a noun form that includes the meaning of with), and analytical languages begin making use of additional morphemes (ie, how er tearns a verb into a noun: teach > teacher) to return to synthetism.
However, nothing lasts forever, and even the most widely spoken languages eventually start losing not just their prominence but even their speakers. Just like people get older and weaker over time, eventually succumbing due to natural causes, so do languages. After declining, they eventually become lost — and sometimes forgotten — relics of the past. There is nothing wrong and unusual with that: death is as natural as life itself.
Today, we’ll take a closer look at the final stages of a language’s existence and what comes afterwards: extinction; how and why it happens, and what comes after a language loses all its speakers.
In this section, we’ll look at once influential and significant languages that all met the same fate.
Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire throughout most years of its existence. Initially a small language spoken by a group of tribes along the banks of the Tiber river, it spread throughout the Mediterranean as Roman power grew. Although it was not universally spoken across the entirety of the Empire’s territory, it was brought all the way from Italy to the farthest ends of Europe, such as modern-day Romania and Morocco.
Even long after the downfall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, Latin continued being a major language for inter-ethnic communication, clergy, science, and even higher education — so much so that some countries used Latin to conduct their official affairs as late as the 19th century. It is still widely used in medicine, zoology, botany, and other spheres of science for naming/nomenclature purposes, and it still sees relatively wide use among clergy.
However, around the late centuries of the Western Roman Empire and the early years of the Medieval era — roughly the 1100s — Latin started to develop into our modern-day Romance languages. In some areas, such as Britain and North Africa, Latin was replaced with other languages, namely English and Arabic. The Eastern Roman Empire, which existed until well ito the 15th century, did use Latin, but its main language was Middle Greek.
(If you’re interested, we’ve actually got an entire article on the downfall of Latin.)
Sanskrit was one of the most influential languages of the Indian subcontinent. It gained this position by being one of the main literary languages of its time, being used primarily in Hinduism. (As such, most modern-day Indian languages were derived from or strongly influenced by Sanskrit.) Other religions for which Sanskrit was the universal means of both oral and written communications were Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Sanskrit literature holds a significant place in the pantheon of ancient poetry and drama.
As time went on, the territory of modern-day India would be conquered and divided by many rulers, including Mongols, Arabs, and the British. Many of them brought their own languages with the intention of replacing Sanskrit. Another reason that the language went extinct was its complexity: it took a substantial amount of time to learn Sanskrit, which made it inconvenient for most.
Strictly speaking, Old English did not die out but instead gradually evolved into a more simple language. The key difference between it and the above-mentioned languages is that no one renamed the language when this transformation occurred (as occurred when Latin evolved into the Romance languages). As such, its (Old English) evolved, grammatically- and lexically- divergent version retains the same name: (Modern) English. Who knows what name the language we know and love today will be called centuries from now? “Modernist” or “Industrial” English, maybe?
Old English evolved as a series of dialects spoken by Germanic settlers from Europe who settled on the British Isles around 410. By that time, the language was no longer entirely pure, having received some words from Latin, Celtic, and other languages. The number of loanwords would greatly increase over the following centuries, given extensive contact with local Celtic tribes, Vikings, and other peoples. After the Norman conquest in 1066, English received a fair share of French vocabulary — and at some point, it eventually became the language we know today. Scholars state that Old English finally disappeared in the mid 11th century, giving place to Middle English, which was a lot closer to our modern-day language.
Courses of language extinction
Now that we’ve seen some languages that went extinct, we’re going to discuss how languages die out. There’s a lot more to it than just “everyone who speaks it dies,” let me assure you.
Before we get started
Now, before we start, let’s make a few things clear. There’s a distinction to be made between “extinct” and “dead” languages. The difference is pretty much visible from the surface:
- A language is considered “dead” when it has no living native speakers, but is still being used in some way. This is the case with the aforementioned Latin and Sanskrit languages, which still see application in religion and science. Some people still speak and learn these languages, but they are not used on a regular basis, and are not passed down from one generation to another.
- “Extinct” languages, on the other hand, are those which no living person can speak or understand. Some may have been extinct for so long that they require decipherment to be understood today. For example, a language called Proto-Elamite, used 5,000 years ago on the territory that is now Iran, is yet to be deciphered. Many ancient languages like Sumerian are also considered extinct, despite having already been deciphered, as they are no longer used in any way by anyone.
The other way around is possible, too. For example, there are numerous revitalization movements in the UK aimed at bringing Celtic languages, like Cornish, back to life. Another successful revival story is Hebrew: prior to the 20th century, it was not spoken natively by anyone and was used only as a religious language. However, mass relocations of Jews to Palestine after World War I and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 spurred efforts to bring the long dead language back to life. Nowadays, Hebrew is spoken by 5 million people and that number is constantly growing.
Now, back to death.
Natural evolutionary course
One of the most common ways that languages die is the natural evolutionary course. Languages change and evolve over time. New words appear via borrowing, meaning shift, invention (yes, some words can literally just be made up, as is the case with the word “robot”) — grammar also changes to better suit the needs of speakers, and over time, more convenient ways of delivering information appear. As we mentioned before, Old English was heavily influenced by the languages of those conquering England at a particular time in history. This resulted in English’s inconsistent vocabulary, which is a mishmash of Germanic and Romance words that have been beaten into shape by bizarre spelling rules and the simple conventions of analytic languages.
Hundreds of years ago, however, the language looked radically different. Its grammar was extremely complex, featuring extensive grammatical case and gender systems, verb conjugations, and even a noun class system. These things are all but absent from the modern version of the language.
Modern languages continue to evolve and develop, eventually becoming newer, more improved and more convenient. For example, my native Russian is en route to slowly lose its extensive grammatical case system. Many people use simpler constructions which, despite being more wordy or just plain wrong in terms of the standard language rules, nevertheless reveal the direction the language is headed toward.
Gradual language death
It’s also fairly common for languages to gradually fall out of use.
Top-to-bottom language death
In this case, language death occurs when speakers of one language come into contact with speakers of another more “prestigious” language and then gradually drop their language in favor of the new one. A community may remain bilingual, which can last throughout dozens of generations, but over time, fewer and fewer young people will use their traditional language. Their level of proficiency will also lower with each successive generation, until the traditional language is no longer spoken at all. This process can be witnessed even now, with many minority languages in Russia being dropped by younger people in favor of Russian, which is thought to be “the language that makes sense.”
Bottom-to-top language death
In this case, a language is no longer used by its native speakers in most instances, but continues to exist in a formal, religious, literary, or ceremonial context. A perfect example for this is Latin, which is no longer used outside of these traditional areas of application. Its evolution into modern Romance languages made those successor languages become distinct new languages, allowing Latin in turn to go through what can be considered a bottom-to-top death case.
Sudden language death
This case of language death happens when all or an overwhelming majority of speakers suddenly die as a result of a disaster, such as an epidemic, natural disaster, or violence. One such example took place in the 1830s in Tasmania, when all of the island’s natives were killed by European colonists. Another instance of a sudden language death occured during the colonization of South America by Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s, many local tribes were wiped out by “new” bacteria that was brought by the Europeans. Their languages perished along with them.
Radical language death
A similar instance in which language death occurs very quickly — literally in the span of one or two generations. However, in this scenario, language death is a result of political repression or (the fear of) violence. In particular, the speakers of a particular language are not killed, but instead are forced to reject their native language for fear of legal prosecution. An example of this occured in El Salvador in the 1930s, when many indigenous peoples began refusing to speak their languages to avoid persecution during (and after) a political uprising.
Looking towards the future
Language diversity has been in decline for the last few hundreds of years. Due to colonialism, globalization and standardization, the world’s top 100 languages are spoken by 85% of the population. This trend continues to develop. Death is just as natural as life itself, and languages, being living organisms, will eventually succumb to it as well.
As for now, we hope you’ve enjoyed this piece. If you did, stay tuned for more, a new article will come out soon. Have a nice day, see you later, and bye!