Extinct language

An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers,[1] especially if the language has no living descendants.[2] In contrast, a dead language is "one that is no longer the native language of any community", even if it is still in use, like Latin.[3] Languages that currently have living native speakers are sometimes called modern languages to contrast them with dead languages, especially in educational contexts.

Eteocypriot writing, Amathous, Cyprus, 500–300 BC, Ashmolean Museum

In the modern period, languages have typically become extinct as a result of the process of cultural assimilation leading to language shift, and the gradual abandonment of a native language in favour of a foreign lingua franca, largely those of European countries.[4][5][6]

As of the 2000s, a total of roughly 7,000 natively spoken languages existed worldwide. Most of these are minor languages in danger of extinction; one estimate published in 2004 expected that some 90% of the currently spoken languages will have become extinct by 2050.[7]

Language death

Sisters Maxine Wildcat Barnett (left) and Josephine Wildcat Bigler (1921-2016);[8] two of the last elderly speakers of Yuchi, visiting their grandmother's grave in a cemetery behind Pickett Chapel in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. According to the sisters, their grandmother had insisted that Yuchi be their native language.

Normally the transition from a spoken to an extinct language occurs when a language undergoes language death by being directly replaced by a different one. For example, many Native American languages were replaced by English, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch as a result of colonization.

In contrast to an extinct language, which no longer has any speakers, or any written use, a historical language may remain in use as a literary or liturgical language long after it ceases to be spoken natively. Such languages are sometimes also referred to as "dead languages", but more typically as classical languages. The most prominent Western example of such a language is Latin, but comparable cases are found throughout world history due to the universal tendency to retain a historical stage of a language as liturgical language.

Historical languages with living descendants that have undergone significant language change may be considered "extinct", especially in cases where they did not leave a corpus of literature or liturgy that remained in widespread use (see corpus language), as is the case with Old English or Old High German relative to their contemporary descendants, English and German.

Some degree of misunderstanding can result from designating languages such as Old English and Old High German as extinct, or Latin dead, while ignoring their evolution as a language. This is expressed in the apparent paradox "Latin is a dead language, but Latin never died." A language such as Etruscan, for example, can be said to be both extinct and dead: inscriptions are ill understood even by the most knowledgeable scholars, and the language ceased to be used in any form long ago, so that there have been no speakers, native or non-native, for many centuries. In contrast, Old English, Old High German and Latin never ceased evolving as living languages, nor did they become totally extinct as Etruscan did. Through time Latin underwent both common and divergent changes in phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon and continues today as the native language of hundreds of millions of people, renamed as different Romance languages and dialects (French, Italian, Spanish, Corsican, Asturian, Ladin, etc.). Similarly, Old English and Old High German never died, but developed into various forms of modern English and German. With regard to the written language, skills in reading or writing Etruscan are all but non-existent, but trained people can understand and write Old English, Old High German and Latin. Latin differs from the Germanic counterparts in that an approximation of its ancient form is still employed to some extent liturgically. This last observation illustrates that for Latin, Old English, or Old High German to be described accurately as dead or extinct, the language in question must be conceptualized as frozen in time at a particular state of its history. This is accomplished by periodizing English and German as Old; for Latin, an apt clarifying adjective is Classical, which also normally includes designation of high or formal register.

Minor languages are endangered mostly due to economic and cultural globalization and development. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant lingua francas of world commerce: English, Chinese, Spanish and French.[9]

In their study of contact-induced language change, American linguists Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman (1991) stated that in situations of cultural pressure (where populations are forced to speak a dominant language), three linguistic outcomes may occur: first - and most commonly - a subordinate population may shift abruptly to the dominant language, leaving the native language to a sudden linguistic death. Second, the more gradual process of language death may occur over several generations. The third and most rare outcome is for the pressured group to maintain as much of its native language as possible, while borrowing elements of the dominant language's grammar (replacing all, or portions of, the grammar of the original language).[10]

Institutions such as the education system, as well as (often global) forms of media such as the Internet, television, and print media play a significant role in the process of language loss.[9] For example, when people migrate to a new country, their children attend school in the country, and the schools are likely to teach them in the majority language of the country rather than their parents' native language.

Language revival

Language revival is the attempt to re-introduce a recently extinct language in everyday use by a new generation of native speakers. The optimistic neologism "sleeping beauty languages" has been used to express such a hope.[11]

Hebrew is an example of a liturgical language that has successfully been revived for everyday use. The revival of Hebrew has been largely successful due to extraordinarily favourable conditions, notably the creation of a nation state in which it became the official language, as well as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's extreme dedication to the revival of the language, by creating new words for the modern terms Hebrew lacked. Revival attempts for minor languages with no status as liturgical language typically have more modest results. The Cornish language revival is an example of a major successful language revival: after a century of effort there are 3,500 claimed native speakers; enough for UNESCO to change its classification from "extinct" to "critically endangered".

Recently extinct languages

This is a list of languages reported as having become extinct since 2010. For a more complete list, see List of extinct languages.

DateLanguageLanguage familyRegionTerminal speaker
4 April 2020Aka-CariGreat AndamaneseAndaman Islands, IndiaLicho[12]
4 January 2019TehuelcheChonanPatagonia, ArgentinaDora Manchado[13][14]
9 December 2016MandanSiouanNorth Dakota, United StatesEdwin Benson[15]
30 August 2016WichitaCaddoanOklahoma, United StatesDoris McLemore[16]
29 July 2016Gugu ThaypanPama-NyunganQueensland, AustraliaTommy George[17]
February 2016Nuchatlaht dialect of Nuu-chah-nulthWakashanBritish Columbia, CanadaAlban Michael[18]
by 2016AmurdagIwaidjanNorthern Territory, AustraliaCharlie Mungulda[19][20]
4 February 2014KlallamSalishanWashington, United StatesHazel Sampson[21]
5 June 2013LivonianUralic > FinnicLatviaGrizelda Kristina[22]
26 March 2013YurokAlgicCalifornia, United StatesArchie Thompson[23]
2 October 2012Cromarty dialect of ScotsGermanicNorthern Scotland, United KingdomBobby Hogg[24]
11 July 2012Upper ChinookChinookanOregon, United StatesGladys Thompson[25]
10 March 2012HolikachukNa-DeneAlaska, United StatesWilson "Tiny" Deacon[26]
ca. 2012DhungalooPama-NyunganQueensland, AustraliaRoy Hatfield[27]
by 2012MardijkerPortuguese-based CreoleJakarta, IndonesiaOma Mimi Abrahams[28]
2011Lower ArrerntePama-NyunganNorthern Territory, AustraliaBrownie Doolan Perrurle[29]
24 October 2010PazehAustronesianTaiwanPan Jin-yu[30]
20 August 2010Cochin Indo-Portuguese CreolePortuguese-based CreoleSouthern IndiaWilliam Rozario[30]
26 January 2010Aka-BoGreat AndamaneseAndaman Islands, IndiaBoa Sr.[31]

See also


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  2. "BBC - Voices - Your Voice". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2018-08-10.
  3. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199202720.001.0001/acref-9780199202720-e-799?rskey=GN3YxZ&result=801 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics (2nd edition).
  4. Byram, Michael; Hu, Adelheid (2013-06-26). Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. Routledge. ISBN 978-1136235535.
  5. Walt, Christa Van der (2007-05-01). Living Through Languages: An African Tribute to René Dirven. AFRICAN SUN MeDIA. ISBN 9781920109707.
  6. Hall, Christopher J.; Smith, Patrick H.; Wicaksono, Rachel (2015-05-11). Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners. Routledge. ISBN 978-1136836237.
  7. "Study by language researcher, David Graddol". NBC News. 2004-02-26. Retrieved 2012-03-22. Ian on Friday, January 16, 2009 61 comments (2009-01-16). "Research by Southwest University for Nationalities College of Liberal Arts". Chinasmack.com. Retrieved 2012-03-22.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link). Ethnologue records 7,358 living languages known,"Ethnologue". Ethnologue. Archived from the original on October 5, 2001. Retrieved 2012-03-22. but on 2015-05-20, Ethnologue reported only 7,102 known living languages; and on 2015-02-23, Ethnologue already reported only 7,097 known living languages.
  8. "One of the Last Remaining Native Yuchi Speakers Passes". www.culturalsurvival.org. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  9. Malone, Elizabeth (July 28, 2008). "Language and Linguistics: Endangered Language". National Science Foundation. Archived from the original on March 9, 2010. Retrieved October 23, 2009.
  10. Thomason, Sarah Grey & Kaufman, Terrence. Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics, University of California Press (1991) p. 100.
  11. See pp. 57 & 60 in Ghil'ad Zuckermann's A New Vision for "Israeli Hebrew": Theoretical and Practical Implications of Analysing Israel's Main Language as a Semi-Engineered Semito-European Hybrid Language, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 5: 57–71 (2006). Dr Anna Goldsworthy on the Barngarla language reclamation, The Monthly, September 2014
  12. International, Survival (2020-06-01). "The last speaker of the Sare language has died". Medium. Retrieved 2020-06-28.
  13. Daigneault, Anna. "Museums of the mind: Why we should preserve endangered languages". Global Voices. Retrieved 23 November 2019.
  14. Domingo, Javier. "La imborrable obra de Dora Manchado: ¿la última guardiana de la lengua tehuelche?". Infobae (in Spanish). Retrieved 23 November 2019.
  15. Joe Skurzewski. "Edwin Benson, last known fluent speaker of Mandan, passes away at 85". FOX News.
  16. "Doris McLemore, Last Fluent Wichita Speaker, Walks On - Indian Country Media Network". indiancountrymedianetwork.com. Archived from the original on 4 August 2017. Retrieved 2017-05-24.
  17. "A "Legend", Indigenous Australian Leader, Knowledge Holder Tommy George Passes On | Snowchange Cooperative". www.snowchange.org. Retrieved 2017-05-24.
  18. Jack Knox. "Jack Knox — A silenced tongue: the last Nuchatlaht speaker dies". Times Colonist.
  19. "Scientists Race Around World to Save Dying Languages". Associated Press. Fox News. 2007-09-20. Archived from the original on 2007-10-05. Retrieved 2009-06-09.
  20. "Census 2016, Language spoken at home by Sex (SA2+)". stat.data.abs.gov.au. Retrieved 2019-02-14.
  21. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/last-native-klallam-speaker-dies-in-port-angeles/2014/02/06/d8108c14-8f70-11e3-878e-d76656564a01_story.html
  22. "Death of a language: last ever speaker of Livonian passes away aged 103". The Times.
  23. Romney, Lee. (2013, February 6). Revival of nearly extinct Yurok language is a success story. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 7, 2013
  24. https://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-robert-bobby-hogg-engineer-and-last-speaker-of-the-cromarty-dialect-1-2576251
  25. Foden-Vencil, Kristian. "Last Fluent Speaker Of Oregon Tribal Language 'Kiksht' Dies". www.opb.org. Retrieved 2017-05-23.
  26. "Alaska Native Language Loses Last Fluent Speaker - Indian Country Media Network". indiancountrymedianetwork.com. Archived from the original on 8 June 2017. Retrieved 2017-05-23.
  27. Dimas, Dimas. "PUNAHNYA BAHASA KREOL PORTUGIS". LIPI (in Indonesian). Retrieved 10 May 2020.
  28. "Another language faces sunset in dead centre". The Australian.
  29. "An Indian language recently went extinct. Why were we not told about it?". write2kill.in - Select writings of Subir Ghosh. Archived from the original on 2013-02-18.
  30. "BBC News - Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India".


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