How to save an endangered language
By Dennis Baron
There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken around the globe today. Five hundred years ago there were twice as many, but the rate of language death is accelerating. With languages disappearing at the rate of one every two weeks, in ninety years half of today’s languages will be gone.
Mostly it’s the little languages, those with very few speakers, that are dying out, but language death can hit big languages as well as little and mid-sized ones. And it can hit those big languages pretty hard. Sure, languages like Degere and Vuna are disappearing in Kenya, Jeju in Korea, Manchu in China. And sure, Nigerians complain that Yoruba is fast giving way to English. But language-watchers warn that English itself may have entered a steep and potentially irreversible decline in both its native and its adoptive country.
English, having spread as a global language during the 20th century, has now become so thin on the ground back home that it’s in danger of disappearing. That’s the conclusion of a new report which sees both competition from other languages and the increased ineptitude of English speakers combining to produce a catastrophic decline in the number of English speakers in England, the language’s ancestral home, as well as in the United States, where English speakers fled in search of religious liberty and alternate side of the street parking.
The report of the Center for the Study of English in the Public Interest, or ČEPI, available on that organization’s website, warns that the language could disappear in less than three generations, or perhaps they meant to say fewer? “Why should little languages like Frisian, Kashubian, and Han get all the attention?” the report asks. “Don’t the bleeding-heart anthropologists bent on preventing the inevitable realize that people stop speaking those doomed languages because other languages do the job better?” it adds. The report calls on those intent on saving endangered languages to switch their attentions to English, a language that might actually benefit from their efforts.
There’s good reason to preserve English rather than let it die. According to ČEPI director Bill Caxton, “When the last speakers go, they take with them their history and culture too.” Granted, Eskimo may not have twenty-three words for snow, as the popular myth would have it, but Eskimos do have a special relationship with snow, as evidenced by Eskimo idioms for ‘snow clumped in the paws of sled dogs’ and ‘snow outside the igloo that turns yellow when Morris is around.’ When Eskimo dies out, as it eventually must, that special relationship will be lost forever, and the Eskimos and the rest of the world will be left with the terms snow, slush, sleet, and snow covered with a crust of blackened automobile exhaust, hardly a vocabulary of nuance and poetry.
With the death of English, the ČEPI report notes, we’ll lose its prolific set of terms for burgers: in addition to hamburger, there’s cheeseburger, bacon burger, bacon cheeseburger, bleu cheese burger (also, blue cheese burger), quarter pounder, quarter pounder with cheese, swissburger, curry burger, tuna burger, turkey burger, chiliburger, soyburger, tofu burger, and black bean burger. And don’t forget hamburger not cooked long enough to eliminate e. coli. The wholesale loss of these terms testifying to English speakers’ preoccupation with chopped meat, and chopped meat substitutes, would be tragic.
When languages die, we also lose their secret herbal remedies and medicinal cures that could revolutionize modern medicine, their old family recipes that could turn the Food Channel on its ear. An English speaker discovered penicillin from traditional English bread mold (or mould), not to mention the extensive research by English speakers into the curative powers of herb-inflected brownies. And then there’s culture: the death of English means the death of rap and musical comedy, though it’s clear that musical comedy died long ago, and the novel, which has died several times already but keeps popping back.
So what’s the evidence that English is dying? After all, it’s still spoken by several hundred million people living in anglophone homelands. “Well, we know,” claims ČEPI’s Caxton, “that if English wasn’t dying, then why are there so many statutes trying to prop it up by making English the official language of states, businesses, and schools? Why would so many people insist that English needs protection from other languages? Why are the directions for assembling furniture and toys always in pictures, not in English?”
“Why, also, would there be so many groups focused on correcting and improving English, purifying it, making sure that it’s protected from native English speakers as well as from foreigners?” Caxton added.
According to the ČEPI report, what’s happening to English now is exactly what happened to Latin 1500 years ago: Latin spread around the world as the language of law, religion, and scholarship, while at home the Romans couldn’t wait to switch to Italian. In much the same way, English has become the international language of business, science, and rock ’n’ roll, while at home it’s fragmenting into incoherent tweets, text messages, and self-help books, while rapidly losing ground to a medley of Spanish, Hindi, and Mandarin.
Asked how English might be saved, ČEPI recommends a multi-pronged approach of strict laws and aversion therapy. “Anyone who makes an error in English or slips into a language other than English, no matter how fleetingly, needs to put a quarter in the coffee can,” said Caxton. “If that doesn’t work, there’s always sound-activated electronic collars that can deliver a measured charge directly to the vocal cords,” he continued.
In the meantime, teams of anthropological linguists are fanning out to collect samples of English for cryo-preservation in case the inevitable happens, on the off-chance that at some point in the future someone might care enough about the once-powerful tongue to revive it. ČEPI itself has sent a team of researchers to a remote valley in Appalachia where the pure, untainted English of Shakespeare is thought to be preserved, or maybe it’s the language of the Earl of Oxford.
According to Ethnologue, a count in 2004 showed that there were only 20 speakers of Ho-Chunk, the language of a Native American tribe living in Nebraska (that’s down from 230 in 1997). When asked what Ho-Chunk speakers thought about intensifying American efforts to preserve English, the official language of the state of Nebraska since 1920, a spokesperson for the Ho-Chunk or Hocák Nation, also known as the Winnebago, said, “Let’s be realistic here. Maybe it’s time for the remaining English speakers to cut their losses, pull the plug, and let the language die.”
Acknowledging that the death of English is at hand, all the Republican presidential hopefuls support English-only legislation. For example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who thinks government should not tell Americans what to do, wants state and federal laws requiring everyone to speak English, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann co-sponsors—along with Ron Paul—H.R. 997, a bill to make English the official language of the United States. English is not the official language of Minnesota, nor is it the official language of Texas. Calls to Bachmann and Perry for a response to the recommendation to let English die were not immediately returned.
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.