How Do Languages Die?

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will first define a dead language. You'll then learn about numerous examples of dead languages as well as how languages might die out quickly and slowly.

What is a Dead Language?

Latin is a dead language. As dead as dead can be. First it killed the Romans and now it's killing me. If you've ever sat in a Latin class, you might've heard this little rhyme. Latin may be the most famous dead language but it's not the only one. A dead language is a language that isn't used in everyday life and/or one that isn't learned as a native language by a community. This term is sometimes used as a synonym for an extinct language, which is one that doesn't have any speakers whatsoever.

In this lesson, we're going to go over the different ways by which languages die (and may become extinct) and examples thereof other than Latin along the way.

Sudden Death

Languages may die out relatively quickly. A natural disaster, such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption, can wipe out a small group of speakers of a near-extinct language in a short span of time. For example, Dusner is a language that is found in Indonesia. The number of Dunser native speakers fell to the single digits after a flood in 2010 nearly obliterated all the speakers of this language.

Natural disasters aren't the only means by which languages can die out very quickly. War is another cause of the sudden death of a language. And while it's easy to imagine how complete genocide can wipe out a language, this isn't the only way by which a language can die off quickly as a result of war.

A good example of this occurred in the first half of the 20th century. At that time, Salvadoran troops in El Salvador killed a group of indigenous people who spoke the Lenca and Cacaopera languages. The remaining natives decided it was too risky to continue speaking their languages. Out of fear of being targeted by the troops, many dropped their native tongues altogether.

More historically, we could look at one of any number of Native American languages that died out due to massacres perpetrated by European settlers and, later, Americans themselves. One such example is the Yana language, which was spoken by natives in California until many of them were slaughtered or moved away from their ancestral lands. This severed their ties to their communities and ultimately, their language.

Slow Death

While languages can die out quite quickly, the reality is that most languages die off relatively slowly. Like with a sudden death to a language, the slow death of a language can occur for more than one reason.

One example of this is the gradual death of a language as a result of bilingualism. For instance, Coptic disappeared as a spoken language in Egypt as a result of the prominence of Arabic. People learned Arabic because it gave them access to better economic opportunities and social standing. And so, gradually people learned more and more Arabic and abandoned the less useful Coptic.

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