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In linguistics, language death (also language extinction, linguistic extinction) can be thought of as a process that affects speech communities where the level of linguistic competence that speakers possess of a given language idiom is decreased.

Total language death occurs when there are no speakers of a given language idiom remaining in a population where the idiom was previously used (i.e. when all native speakers die). Language death may affect any language idiom, including (so-called) dialects and languages.

The study of language loss at the individual level focuses on what is lost - a first language (L1) or a second language (L2) - and where it is lost - in an L1 or L2 environment.

Types of language deathEdit

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Language death may manifest itself in one of the following ways:

  • gradual language death
  • bottom-to-top language death
  • radical language death
  • linguicide (a.k.a. sudden language death, language death by genocide, physical language death, biological language death)

The most common process leading to language death is one in which a community of speakers of one language becomes bilingual in another language, and gradually shifts allegiance to the second language until they cease to use their original (or heritage) language. This is a process of assimilation which may be voluntary or may be forced upon a population. Speakers of some languages, particularly regional or minority languages, may decide to abandon them based on economic or utilitarian grounds, in favour of languages regarded as having greater utility or prestige. Languages can also die when their speakers are wiped out by genocide or disease or, in the rare event, devastating natural catastrophes.

A language is often declared to be dead even before the last native speaker of the language has died. If there are only a few elderly speakers of a language remaining, and they no longer use that language for communication, then the language is effectively dead. A language that has reached such a reduced stage of use is generally considered moribund. The process of attrition occurs when intergenerational transmission of a mother tongue or heritage language or native language has effectively stopped. This is rarely a sudden event, but a slow process of each generation learning less and less of the language, until its use is relegated to the domain of traditional use, such as in poetry and song. For example, a family's adults may speak in an older native language, but when they have children, they may not pass on this language, and therefore the language dies in that family. This situation occurred with the Manx language, but Manx, in addition to other languages, has been reintroduced in schools and in bilingual publications (see language revival).

Language attritionEdit

Main article: Language attrition

Language attrition is the loss of a language or a portion of that language by either a speech community or an individual. Four areas of loss are defined as what is lost - an L1 or an L2 - and where it is lost - in an L1 or L2 environment.

Causes: SociolinguisticsEdit

Sociolinguistics may play a role in language death if the constructions of society fail to support linguistic diversity. Language policies may be used to protect languages from extinction, and terms such as “linguistic human rights” have welcomed an increasing awareness of the socio-strategic dichotomy of natural rights and linguistic freedom. Lack of awareness is arguably a prominent cause of language death, when native speakers of the dominant language fail to recognize the contributing aspects of a multi-lingual community, and in turn, the language policies restrict rather than protect the minority language. When the resources for linguistic maintenance lessen and socio-economic stability relies heavily on proficiency in the dominant language, an extinction of the minority language is plausible.

Consequences on grammarEdit

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changes caused by language death result from convergence, interference, and independent autogenetic processes

Language revivalEdit

Main article: Language revival

Sometimes language death can be reversed, as has happened with the Hebrew language in Israel. However, this is the only large-scale language revival process that has ever succeeded, as the attempts of successive Irish governments to revive the Irish language since 1922 . Although there was support for the revival of the language before independence, making the language compulsory in schools and for government jobs are thought to have been counterproductive. Consequently, the language has been in continuous decline, except in Northern Ireland, where it has become popular (mostly among nationalists) after a long period of stagnation.

Language loss & language acquisitionEdit

Some linguists have suggested a comparison between language death/attrition phenomena and language acquisition, where language death is viewed as a kind of language acquisition in reverse. Together, language loss and language acquisition can co-exist when a speaker acquires a second language and fails to exercise and preserve the first. This process is often noted as a shift to monolingualism, when one relies on a temporal identity to better adhere to social economy and linguistic hierarchy. Some linguistics argue it is the “inside-language” that affects the preference of the dominant language because linguistic minorities cannot be fully aware of the language living inside themselves, and therefore take for granted the social relevance of their native language. In struggling to build identity and understand media coverage and economic benchmarks, we may often see a preference of the dominant language, and continually a loss of exercise in the minority language. Some linguistic minorities may be shocked to find their language near extinction, but the idea that even to communicate that frustration, one must raise awareness in the dominant language, reveals the preference of the dominant language for cross-cultural understanding.

Dead languages and normal language changeEdit

Language "death" must not be confused with the process where a language becomes a "dead language" through normal language change. This happens when a language in the course of its normal development gradually morphs into something that is then recognized as a separate, different language, leaving the old form with no native speakers. Thus, for example, Old English may be regarded as a "dead language", with no native speakers, although it has never "died" but instead simply changed and developed into Modern English. The process of language change may also involve the splitting up of a language into a family of several daughter languages, leaving the common parent language "dead". This has happened to Latin, which (through Vulgar Latin) eventually developed into the family of Romance languages. Such a process is normally not described as "language death", because it involves an unbroken chain of normal transmission of the language from one generation to the next, with only minute changes at every single point in the chain. There is thus no single point in time where anyone could say that "Latin died".

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit


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