Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Why we should revive dead languages

Approximately 7,000 languages are currently spoken worldwide. The majority of these are spoken by small populations. Approximately 96% of the world’s population speaks around 4% of the world’s languages, leaving the vast majority of tongues vulnerable to extinction and disempowering their speakers. Linguistic diversity reflects many things beyond accidental historical splits. Languages are essential building blocks of community identity and authority.

With globalization of dominant cultures, homogenization and Coca-colonization, cultures at the periphery are becoming marginalized, and more and more groups all over the world are added to the forlorn club of the lost-heritage peoples. One of the most important symptoms of this cultural disaster is language loss. Should we reclaim these languages? Absolutely. Here are three of the reasons:

The first reason for language revival is ethical: It is right.

Indigenous and minority languages are worthy of reviving for historic social justice. They deserve to be reclaimed in order to right the wrong of the past. These languages were wiped out in a process of linguicide. I personally know dozens of Aboriginal people who were stolen from their mothers when they were kids. I believe in Native Tongue Title, an extension of Native Title (compensation for the loss of land, in Australia). Governments should grant financial compensation for the loss of languages – to cover efforts to resuscitate a tongue or empower an endangered one. Language is more important than land. Loss of language leads not only to loss of cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, spirituality and heritage, but also to the loss of the soul, metaphorically speaking.

The second reason for language revival is aesthetic: It is beautiful.

Diversity is beautiful, aesthetically pleasing. Just as it is fun to embrace koalas or to photograph baby rhinos and elephants, so, too, it is fun to listen to a plethora of languages and to learn odd and unique words.

For example, I love the word mamihlapinatapai in the Yaghan language, spoken in Chile’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago. The word is very precise and to the point in its meaning. Any attempt to translate it cannot be performed in fewer words than the following: “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.” Despite the fact that any word in a language is translatable, there is a difference, at least aesthetically, between saying mamihlapinatapai and saying that long sentence in English.

An example for a concept that I have never imagined prior to learning Ancient Persian is nakhur, “a camel that will not give milk until her nostrils have been tickled.” As Nelson Mandela said, “when you speak a language, English, well many people understand you, including Afrikaners, but when you speak Afrikaans, you know you go straight to their hearts.”

The third benefit for language revival is utilitarian: It is viable and socially beneficial.

Language reclamation empowers people who have lost their sense of pride and at times even the reason to live. This well-being empowerment can save governments billions of dollars that would otherwise need to be invested in mental health and incarceration. Not to mention the various cognitive and health benefits of bilingualism. For example, native bilinguals are cleverer than themselves as monolinguals. Native and even non-native bilingualism delays dementia.

Given globalization and languages loss, language revival is becoming more and more relevant in 2020 as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve their well-being. Language revival has moral, aesthetic, psychological, cognitive, and economic benefits. It encompasses social justice, social harmony, diversity, employability, and mental health.

Featured Image Credit: sea water during sunset, by Anton Gorlin via Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. a. langley

    There are still too many languages in use. Too much complexity that hinders communication and creates unnecessary notions of victimhood.

  2. E. M. Riddle

    To Langley: Most people in the world are bilingual or even multilingual, especially speakers of languages spoken natively by relatively small numbers of people. Also, very often, those people were in their territories before speakers of the “larger” languages were (e.g. English, Spanish), and the native peoples often WERE victims, and continue to experience prejudice. Recognizing their languages as important to them is simple human decency, not to mention functional to society in terms of education, medical services, etc. As a key feature distinguishing humans from other living creatures, language, as opposed to more limited systems of communication, is intimately tied to one’s identity. And that thousands of languages exist is a natural phenomenon related to human movement and formation of new communities at a distance.
    Finally, a factor that the article did not mention: The more information linguists have about how varied languages work, the more they are able to understand the very nature of human language itself, which in turn is a window into how human cognition works, with practical applications. For this work it is necessary to have vast amounts of information about the possible variations and similarities that exist across las many languages as possible. So the variety of languages that exists is similar in importance to the variety of plants, animals, insects, etc. in understanding the natural world.

  3. Steve Dobbs

    Nice read on dead languages. There are many languages that people don’t know about it’s incredible. I did a study and wrote a blog on the origin of the world’s languages and included information on dead languages and even new one’s that people are not familiar with. I thought it might be useful.

Comments are closed.