In linguistics, language death (also language extinction, linguistic extinction, and sometimes pejoratively as linguicide) is 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 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 death
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, disease, or the rare event of a devastating natural catastrophe.
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 "heritage language", mother tongue 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. One example of this process reaching its conclusion is that of the Dalmatian language.
Language attrition is the loss of a language or portion of a language, by either a speech community or an individual. Four areas of loss are defined by what is lost, the first language (L1) or the second language (L2), and where it is lost, in the L1 or L2 environment.
factors may play a role in language death if societal constructs do not favor linguistic diversity. Much as cultural norms and governmental policies can preserve and even promote endangered and minority languages, restrictions can lead to contraction and, eventually, extinction. Practical considerations, such as the relative economic utility of a dominant language, may accelerate this process.
Consequences on grammar
During language loss--usually referred to as obsolescence in the linguistic literature--the language that is being lost generally undergoes changes as speakers make their language more similar to the language that they are shifting to. This process of change has been described in two categories, though they are not mutually exclusive. Often speakers replace elements of their own language with something from the language they are shifting toward. Also, if their heritage language has an element that the new language does not, speakers may drop it.
Sometimes language death can be reversed, as has happened with the Hebrew language in Israel. However, the success of such programs is rare, with the case of Hebrew being one of the few large-scale language revival process that has achieved some degree of success, despite the fact that it was extinct in everyday use for an extended period, and was only used as a liturgical language.
Other cases of language revitalization which have seen some degree of success are Welsh and Hawai'ian.
Language loss and language acquisition
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 linguists 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 change
Linguists distinguish between language "death" and the process where a language becomes a "dead language" through normal language change, a linguistic phenomenon similar to pseudoextinction. 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, one point where "Latin died".
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