Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Disappearing languages

The November 19 edition of Outlook Magazine carries this article on disappearing languages, which I found extremely interesting. The opening statement that a language dies somewhere in the world every 14 days, is indeed incredible. That is why the endangered language list of the world comprises languages spoken in practically every country in the world. A good example would be Siletz Dee-ni spoken somewhere in the United States, that had just one speaker in 2007. There are many other such languages that are spoken by not more than a handful of people.

Statistics apart, this piece of information set me thinking. Why exactly do languages die? How can someone, whose mother tongue is language X, totally forget the language and neglect to teach it to the next generation? What motivates a person to abandon his/her mother tongue completely in favour of another, alien tongue? Of course, the mother tongue is not compatible with the economic activity of the individual. My mother tongue, Kannada, is certainly not compatible with either security studies or French language teaching. But, that does not mean I forget the language, or not bother to teach my kids the language. My cousins speak both Tamil, the language of their father, and Kannada, the language of their mother. I do acknowledge the problem of expatriates and others, far away from their families. But, why do families as a whole decide to adopt another language, as is the case with Siletz Dee-ni or any other language?

It's a pity that, along with languages, whole cultures are disappearing. A language brings along with it a host of practices, values and a whole new outlook to life, that is irretrievably lost when the language becomes extinct. What is even more shocking is that even India, which is lauded for its astounding linguistic diversity is home to several endangered languages, of them, Greater Andamanese, which has a mere 7 fluent speakers. I can only hope that the initiative of the the Central Institute for Indian Languages to revive them is successful.

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