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Lecture 10


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University of Toronto Scarborough
Chandan Narayan

UNESCO General Assembly, 1993: “Although its exact scope is not yet known, it is certain that the extinction of languages is progressing rapidly in many parts of the world, and it is of the highest importance that the linguistic profession realize that it has to step up its descriptive efforts.” (Crystal:vii) Endangered Language Fund, 1995: “Languages have died off throughout history, but never have we faced the massive extinction that is threatening the world right now. As language professionals, we are faced with a stark reality: Much of what we study will not be available to future generations. The cultural heritage of many people is crumbling while we look on. Are we willing to shoulder the blame for having stood by and done nothing?” (Crystal: vii) Foundation of Endangered Languages, 1995 “There is agreement among linguists who have considered the situation that over half of the world’s languages are moribund, i.e. not effectively being passed on to the next generation. We and our children, then, are living at the point in human history where within perhaps two generations, most languages in the world will die out.” (Crystal:viii) • What is language death? • Which languages are dying? • Why do languages die? And why now? • Why is the death of a language important? • Can anything be done? • Should anything be done? What is language death? • A language dies when it fails to be transmitted to new speakers. • Concretely, a language dies when the last speaker dies, (though it usually has become moribund well before then). • Bruce Connell(in Crystal:1): • During fieldwork in the Mambila region of Cameroon’s Adamawa province in 1994-95, I came across a number of moribund languages…For one of these languages, Kasabe ….only one remaining speaker, Bogon, was found….I November 1996 I returned to the Mambila…to collect further data on Kasabe. Bogon, however, died on 5th Nov. 1995, taking Kasabe with him. He is survived a sister, who reportedly could understand Kasabe but not speak it, and several children and grandchildren, none of whom knew the language. • Ole Stig Andersen (in Crystal:2) • “The West Caucasian language Ubuh…died at daybreak, October 8th 1992, when the Last Speaker, Tevfik Esenc, passed away. I happened to arrive in his village that very same day, without appointment, to interview this famous Last Speaker, only to learn that he had died just a couple of hours earlier. He was buried later the same day.” Which languages are dying? • How many languages are at the point of death? • How many are endangered? These are very difficult questions to answer. • First of all, need to establish how many languages there are alive in the world today. • Most estimates: 6000-7000 • But estimates have varied between 3000 and 10,000 in recent decades. • Why is this number so hard to come by? – Until latter half of 20th century, there had been few surveys of any breadth. – Surveys that have been done in recent decades are known to be incomplete. – The first attempt at a world-wide survey was undertaken by Ethnologue in 1974 (the result: 5687) – The 13th edition of Ethnologue (1996) cites 6703 languages. The current online version cites 6902 languages. (Crystal p. 15) • A very small number of languages accounts for a vast proportion of the world’s population. • The 8 languages with over 100 million speakers have nearly 2.4 billion speakers between them. • The top 20 languages are spoken by over half of the world’s population. • 4% of the world’s languages are spoken by 96% of the population • 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4% of the population. • So when considering stats on language death, this is the context. • More stats: • A quarter of the world’s languages are spoken by less than 1000 speakers • Over half are sp
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