(9218字) 森川林 2019/09/27 12:52:24 9318 5
The last speakers of probably half of the world's languages are alive today. As they grow old and die, their voices will fall silent. Their children and grandchildren?by overwhelming majority?will either choose not to learn or will be deprived of the opportunity to learn the ancestral language. Most of the world's languages have never been written down anywhere or scientifically described. We do not even know what exactly we stand to lose?for science, for humanity, for posterity?when languages die. An immense edifice of human knowledge, painstakingly assembled over millennia by countless minds, is eroding, vanishing into oblivion.
In the year 2001, as the second millennium came to a close, at least 6,912 distinct human languages were spoken worldwide. Many linguists now predict that by the end of our current twenty-first century?the year 2101--only about half of these languages may still be spoken. How do we know this? It follows from unrelenting demographic facts and the passage of time.
In 2005, fully 204 languages had speaker communities numbering fewer than 10 people, a dire scenario. An additional 344 languages had between 10 and 99 speakers. As their speakers grow old and die, these languages too will descend into the fewer-than-10speakers demographic. The 548 languages with fewer than 99 speakers make up nearly one-tenth of the world's languages, and all are faced with almost certain disappearance. Only in the unlikeliest of scenarios can we expect any of these languages to be transmitted to younger generation speakers or to gain new speakers. Even larger languages, such as Navajo with nearly 150,000 speakers, may find themselves in jeopardy, suggesting that population size alone is no guarantee of security.
What does it feel like to speak a language with 10 or fewer speakers? For people like Vasya Gabov of Siberia, who at age 54 is the youngest fluent speaker of his native Os language, it means to feel isolated and to rarely have an opportunity to speak one's native tongue. It means to be nearly invisible, surrounded by speakers of another, dominant language who do not even acknowledge yours. Speakers in this situation tend to forget words, idioms, and grammatical rules due to lack of practice. When asked to speak, for example, by visiting linguists hoping to document the language, they struggle to find words. Os is now spoken by fewer than 30 individuals, and it is the daily, household language of just a single family. All other speakers reside in households where Russian serves as the medium of most conversations. In this situation, one shared by speakers of thousands of small languages worldwide, it becomes hard to be heard, hard not to forget, hard not to become invisible.
At the current pace, we stand to lose a language about every 10 days for the foreseeable future. Os will surely be among them. Given life expectancy figures in Russia, we could predict Os to be gone by the year 2015. All across the world, the loss is accelerating. You do not need to go to Amazonia or Siberia to observe language death; it is going on all around us. As I write this book, I am sitting in my office on the campus of Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, just 500 yards from the banks of the Crum Creek. “The Crum' as locals call it, was once hoine to the Okehocking Lenape Indian tribe. Their language, Lenape, was once spoken by dozens of tribes or bands inhabiting the Delaware valley, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The tribe was later forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, where Lenape reportedly still had 5 speakers left in 1996. At that time, the question “ktalenixsi hach?”?“Do you speak Lenape?” was one that might still be asked and answered "e-e"_“Yes." But by 2004 not a single speaker remained among the tribe's 10,500 registered members. Languages in our own backyard and in remote corners of the globe vanish apace.
Languages do not literally 'die' or go “extinct, since they are not living organisms. Rather, they are crowded out by bigger languages. Small tongues get abandoned by their speakers, who stop using them in favor of a more dominant, more prestigious, or more widely known tongue. We lack an appropriate technical term to describe people abandoning complex systems of knowledge like languages. So we rely on metaphors, calling it "language death', 'language shift', 'threatened languages', 'extinction', 'last words’, or ‘vanishing voices'. Some prefer to say that languages like Tunica, once spoken by native Americans in Alabama, or Wampanoag, once spoken by the Mashpee Wampanoag people of Cape Cod, are merely ‘sleeping' or 'dormant' and may be ‘awakened', 'retrieved', or “revived' in some hoped-for future.
Extending the biological metaphor, language disappearance only superficially resembles species extinction. Animal species are complex, have evolved over long periods of time, possess unique traits, and have adapted to a specific ecological niche. An extinct dodo bird can be stuffed by taxidermists and displayed in a museum after all its kind are dead and gone. But a stuffed dodo is no substitute for a thriving dodo population. Languages, too, have adapted over time to serve the needs of a particular population in their environment. They have been shaped by people to serve as repositories for cultural knowledge, efficiently packaged and readily transmittable across generations. Like dodo birds in museums, languages may be preserved in dictionaries and books after they are no longer spoken. But a grammar book or dictionary is but a dim reflection of the richness of a spoken tongue in its native social setting.
The accelerating extinction of languages on a global scale has no precedent in
human history. And while it is not exactly equivalent to biological extinction of endangered species, it is happening much faster, making species extinction rates look trivial by comparison. Scientists' best estimates show that since the year 1600 the planet lost a full 484 animal species, while 654 plant species were recorded as having gone extinct. Of course, these are underestimates. But even so, they make up less than 7 percent of the total number of identified plant and animal species. Compared to this, the estimated 40 percent of languages that are endangered is a staggering figure. Languages are far more threatened than birds (11% threatened, endangered, or extinct), mammals (18%), fish (5%), or plants (8%).
Language disappearance is an erosion or extinction of ideas, of ways of knowing, and ways of talking about the world and human experience. Linguist Ken Hale, who worked on many endangered languages up until his death in 2001, told a reporter: “When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It's like dropping a bomb on a museum, the Louvre.” Even Hale's metaphor does not go far enough. We simply do not know what we stand to lose with the loss of a single language.
But first let us ask “How are languages lost?" Looking around the globe, we see populations of people shifting en masse from speaking the language of their parents to speaking something else. As people exchange an ancestral tongue for the dominant language of their countries, they become culturally assimilated, linguistically homogenized. There are several recognized stages to the process.
Language death typically begins with political or social discrimination against a language or its speakers. This may take the form of official state policies to suppress speech, or it may be benign neglect. Constantine Mukhaev, one of the last speakers of the Tofa language of Siberia, recalls being punished for speaking his native tongue instead of Russian in school. “When I was a child they sent us to the village school. Lessons were in Russian only, and I couldn't understand anything. The teacher ... used to beat me when I couldn't answer in Russian. In the mornings, he would test his stick to see if it was supple enough to hit us with."
Faced with such pressures, young speakers like Constantine may abandon their ancestral language. When they grow up, they may fail (or refuse) to transmit it to their children. Many factors can interrupt successful language transmission, but it is rarely the result of free will. The decision tends to be made by the very youngest speakers, 6- and 7-year-olds, under duress or social pressure, and these children then influence the speech behavior of adults in the community. These youngest speakers?acting as tiny social barometers?are acutely sensitive to the disfavored status of their elders' language and may choose to speak the more dominant tongue. Once this happens, the decision tends to
be irreversible. A language no longer being learned by children as their native tongue is known as “moribund’. Its days are numbered, as speakers grow elderly and die and no new speakers appear to take their places.
Once a language is moribund, it continues to decline as its use becomes more restricted. It may be spoken only in the home, or only among elders, or at ceremonial events. As they fall silent, elderly speakers become invisible, lacking any linguistic difference that would set them apart from the people surrounding them. At the same time, they begin to forg