No one should be too surprised to overhear an endangered language spoken in the heart of Manhattan—endangered because its speakers have ceased to use them or are simply dying. Home to more than 800 languages—more than a tenth of the world’s total number of living speech forms—the five boroughs of New York City are the most linguistically diverse urban settlement on Earth.
Whether inside iconic yellow cabs or among passengers chatting in the colorful No. 7 train somewhere between Flushing and Times Square, people in this bustling metropolis speak endangered languages every day. The clicks and tones that cabbie just used on the phone to his cousin may well have been in a language at risk of disappearing.
There is now cause for hope. While the dispersal of speech communities across the globe has led to the demise of some languages, technology popularized by globalization is playing an equally important role in their revitalization. Through the Internet and mobile communications, people are reconnecting with fellow speakers using digital tools to revive languages on the endangered list.
Linguists estimate that of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages, up to half will no longer be in regular use by the end of this century. Every month, another language slips into oblivion, undocumented, when the last speaker dies or when children make complete transition to an official, national language.
Consider Livonian, a Uralic language, whose last surviving native speaker, Grizelda Kristina, died in June 2013. Does it matter if such voices vanish without a trace? After all, wouldn’t everyone be better off if one language united humanity—with less strife, better communication, and greater access to shared knowledge?
With the death of its last fluent speaker, the Bo language, one of the 10 Great Andamanese languages, became extinct in January 2010.
Boa Sr. had lived on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal her whole life, surviving not only the devastating tsunami of 2004 by climbing a tree, but enduring many waves of foreign invasion and disease that preceded it.
Her language was of great antiquity and contributed to our understanding of humanity’s linguistic heritage.
From 2005, Boa Sr. had worked with Anvita Abbi, professor of linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, to document not only her language but also the cultural, historical, and ecological knowledge that it relayed. While Boa Sr.’s passing marked the loss of another speech form, a comprehensive archive of digitized audio, visual, and textual documents is now available for future generations.
Kusunda is one of more than 130 languages indigenous to Nepal, a linguistically and culturally rich Asian republic. A language isolate, unrelated to any other known human speech form, Kusunda was until recently believed to be extinct.
In 2004, members of Nepal’s leading Department of Linguistics at Tribhuvan University made contact with a fluent speaker of Kusunda, resulting in the first grammatical description of this unique language.
While effectively moribund, with little chance of becoming a popular vernacular again, the typologically distinct Kusunda language has now been carefully documented, even if its communicative power and the cultural world in which it thrived are lost for good.
Most Languages Unwritten
It’s easy to forget that most of the world’s languages are still transmitted orally with no widely established written form. While speech communities are increasingly involved in projects to protect their languages—in print, on air and online—orality is fragile and contributes to linguistic vulnerability.
But indigenous languages are about much more than unusual words and intriguing grammar: They function as vehicles for the transmission of cultural traditions, environmental understandings, and knowledge about medicinal plants, all at risk when elders die and livelihoods are disrupted.
Both push and pull factors lead to the decline of languages. Through war, famine, and natural disasters, whole communities can be destroyed, taking their language with them to the grave, such as the indigenous populations of Tasmania who were wiped out by colonists.
More commonly, speakers live on but abandon their language in favor of another vernacular, a widespread process that linguists refer to as “language shift” from which few languages are immune.
Such trading up and out of a speech form occurs for complex political, cultural, and economic reasons—sometimes voluntary for economic and educational reasons, although often amplified by state coercion or neglect. Welsh, long stigmatized and disparaged by the British state, has rebounded with vigor.
Many speakers of endangered, poorly documented languages have embraced new digital media with excitement. Speakers of previously exclusively oral tongues are turning to the Web as a virtual space for languages to live on. Internet technology offers powerful ways for oral traditions and cultural practices to survive, even thrive, among increasingly mobile communities.
I have watched as videos of traditional wedding ceremonies and songs are recorded on smartphones in London by Nepali migrants, then uploaded to YouTube and watched an hour later by relatives in remote Himalayan villages connected to the Internet by satellite or through 3G data coverage. Similarly, Skype and WeChat are powerful technologies that help sustain increasingly dispersed communities of speakers living across different time zones.
Community-based language documentation projects are increasingly bridging the digital divide by prioritizing field-based audio-visual recordings and interviews with elders who still have fluency in the language, building online archives that protect cultural patrimony and establishing local cultural museums. These experimental projects are saturated with multimedia connectivity made possible by fast-emerging standards, such as Unicode; open-source platforms including WordPress; and free software like HandBrake, an open source video transcoder, or VLC, a cross-platform media player.
Effective managers of community documentation projects now worry as much about securing the right domain name and handle for their presence on YouTube, Twitter, Kickstarter, and Facebook as they do about traditional fundraising.
Earlier editions of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger were available only in print—expensive to produce, difficult to disseminate and quickly out of date. UNESCO’s most recent atlas offers an online, interactive interface that allows users to contribute comments and suggest amendments, an example of effective crowd cataloging. In such cases, digital technology sustains conversation and facilitates wider participation, inviting contributions from community members and language speakers themselves.
Homogenization and Monolingualism
Globalization is regularly, and often uncritically, pilloried as a major threat to linguistic diversity. But in fact, globalization is as much process as it is ideology, certainly when it comes to language. The real forces behind cultural homogenization are unbending beliefs, exchanged through a globalized delivery system, reinforced by the historical monolingualism prevalent in much of the West.
Monolingualism—the condition of being able to speak only one language—is regularly accompanied by a deep-seated conviction in the value of that language over all others. Across the largest economies that make up the G8, being monolingual is still often the norm, with multilingualism appearing unusual and even somewhat exotic.
The monolingual mindset stands in sharp contrast to the lived reality of most the world, which throughout its history has been more multilingual than unilingual. Monolingualism, then, not globalization, should be our primary concern.
Multilingualism can help us live in a more connected and more interdependent world. By widening access to technology, globalization can support indigenous and scholarly communities engaged in documenting and protecting our shared linguistic heritage.
For the last 5,000 years, the rise and fall of languages was intimately tied to the plow, sword, and book. In our digital age, the keyboard, screen, and Web will play a decisive role in shaping the future linguistic diversity of our species.
Mark Turin is a linguist, anthropologist, and broadcaster who has worked in the Himalayas for more than 20 years. He directs the Yale Himalaya Initiative and the Digital Himalaya Project. @markturin Copyright 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.