Will the English language ever die?

October 24, 2011, University of Cambridge

These cultural conventions are indicative of how a language impacts the worldview of the people who speak it. In Martu, an Aboriginal language from Western Australian, black and all dark colours are maru or maru-maru while in Vietnamese both green and blue are xanh. The Saami of northern Scandinavia have hundreds of words for different types of snow like vuož’že (wet snow), ritni (crusted snow) and chiegar (old snow dug up a reindeer).

Language is not just spoken words but also a gateway into a culture. UNESCO estimates that there are over 6,000 languages spoken around the globe today, half of which are under threat and face dying out. Could this ever happen to the English ?

The threat to the world’s languages and the eventual fate of English are the driving force behind the work of four researchers: Dr. Stephen Pax Leonard, Dr. Jon Fox, Dr. Andrew Dalby, and Nicholas Oster. They will be discussing their research on Saturday 22 October at the Festival of Ideas, the UK’s only arts, humanities and social science festival which runs this year from 19-30 October.

Dr. Leonard, an anthropological linguist at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, has recently returned from living for a year with the Inughuit people on the remote Herbert Island, northwest Greenland. At the Festival of Ideas he will debut a short film about his time in the arctic and his experiences of living in the community.

The Inughuit are a semi-nomadic people whose knowledge of their land and culture is based on oral tradition, stories and mythologies which have very rarely been written down. But this traditional way of life is being doubly threatened – both globalization and climate change could prove to be the downfall of this unique society.

Sitting around a TV watching Danish-language shows has replaced listening to the stories of their ancestors. The drum-song, or piheq, and story-telling were partially entertainment during the sunless winters and nightless summers but perhaps more importantly says Dr. Leonard, “a pool of indigenous knowledge regarding ice systems, weather systems, place names and the habits and movements of the sea mammals on which they depend.”

The Inughuit world is one of extremes – during the winter three and a half months pass without the sun rising over the horizon as they live only 800 miles from the North Pole. Now it is changing. The hunting season is now halved as the ice, which used to form in September, is only thick enough between December and March.

The effects due to climate change, unsurprisingly, are having a detrimental effect on the traditional way of life of the Inughuit. “Now, nobody knows when the sea ice will come or how long it will stay for,” says Dr. Leonard. “The glaciers are melting at a faster rate than anybody ever expected and the movement of the animals has become less and less predictable. The Arctic hunters believe that we have not listened to nature and now we are paying the price. They think it is time to use our knowledge wisely.”

It is becoming harder for the Inughuit to survive traditionally based on their hunting prowess. New legislation also makes it more expensive to hunt marine mammals and many Inuguit are resorted to buying expensive, imported food.

The Inuguit are not the only Arctic occupiers who are struggling in this new, warmer climate. A polar bear entered the town one night in search of food and was shot and killed in front of Dr. Leonard’s cabin. It had no blubber – it was starving due to the effects of climate change on its normal hunting and migratory habits.

But many Inuguit do not believe the transformation is a result of human impact – and this too is endangering their language, culture, and perhaps even their lives. Dr. Leonard explains that “they believe that the weather changes in cycles. That is what their ancestors told them. If the sea ice disappears, only to return 50 years later, that crucial unrecorded knowledge bound up in the stories will have been lost forever and to the detriment of future hunters.”

Only 770 speakers of Inuktun, or Polar Eskimo, remain although this number grows ever smaller. There are less than ten people left who are able to sing the traditional drum song of their ancestors.

While Inuktun provides over 20 ways of referring to ice and 18 different types of wind young people, according to Dr. Leonard, are unable to remember more than a few. The youths are finding the traditional hunting life too difficult and leave the community in search of employment. In order to do so they must learn to speak Standard (Greenlandic) and run the risk of isolating themselves, no longer being seen as real Polar Eskimos by those who follow the traditional way of life.

The threat to language is not isolated to the Northwest Greenland. With about one language disappearing every two weeks, Dr. Dalby, author of Language in Danger and honorary fellow and the Institute of Linguistics, predicts that that the 3,000 languages currently in danger will no longer be spoken by the 22nd century.

Europe alone has 50 threatened and severely endangered languages. In the United Kingdom ten languages are considered endangered: Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Manx, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Guernsey French and Jersey French. The eleventh, Alderney French, has become extinct.

However it is possible, with concerted and deliberate effort, for languages to “be raised from the dead.” Cornish became linguistically extinct in the 18th century until a campaign to revive it two hundred years later. Now there are over 2,000 fluent speakers.

Eastern Europe also has a list of languages and cultures which are in danger of becoming immersed into a larger, Euro-centric identity. Hungary has five threatened languages while Romania has eleven. Yet again these languages can form an integral part of the identity of their speakers, especially for nationalists.

Yet do everyday speakers of language find their identity bound up in the words which they use? Dr Fox will explore the different usages of language, from those for whom it is simply a method of communication to those who see language as a unifier – identifying, embodying, and constituting the nation.

Dr. Fox explains, “Nationalists are the self-appointed guardians of national languages:  they do everything in their power to prevent the demise of or changes to their languages.  But ordinary people are somewhat more sanguine about changes to their national languages.  For them, national identity can simply evolve with language.  Whilst the demise of a national language sounds the death knoll of the nation for nationalists, ordinary people are better at rolling with linguistic changes.”

English is the language of globalization that has, in many ways, become an enemy to other languages. Will it ever need to be resuscitated from death’s door? Oster, author of The Last Language Franca, doesn’t think so. He also believes though that the current dominance of English in the world is nearing its end.  Globalization might have helped the supremacy of English to continue long after the fall of the British Empire but economic and technological development, trade and migration will change the ways which people access and use language.

Yet neither does Ostler believe that another language, Chinese for example, will become the new global leader. He reckons that by 2050, a mere generation, the reign of any single global lingua franca – a language used between people who do not share a common mother tongue- will have met its demise. We are apparently heading towards a diverse, multilingual future in which technology will allow people to communicate efficiently and effectively without resorting to learning a completely new language.

This in some ways may actually be good for English – lingua franca languages often lose their cultural worth as people no longer value the language for its own sake, but rather for what can be attained by using it. Perhaps by recognizing that languages are more than words we can appreciate the necessity to save both the threatened ones, but also remember the heritage of our own language.

Explore further: Bilinguals get the blues

More information: Why do languages die took place on Saturday October 22 at the Faculty of Law, Sidgwick Site, as part of Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas.

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2.5 / 5 (2) Oct 24, 2011
Google translate 20 years on will merge with googletalk so languages differences will not matter--you might be speaking Inuktun and I English and neither of us will might not know nor care.
3 / 5 (4) Oct 24, 2011
6,000 languages spoken around the globe today, half of which are under threat and face dying out. Could this ever happen to the English language?
What a profoundly hapless question! The author has obviously never attended a history class at school. No, it could not happen to English. It will happen to English. Period.

There are exactly two alternatives: either the Western way of life and economy doesn't hold and the Chinese, the Arabs, the Indians, or the South Americans take over. And then English will perish because the new elite and world trade will be conducted in this new language.

The other alternative is that historical, cultural, technical, political, or even reasons of fashion lessen the international interaction from what it is today. This would lead to a destiny like what Latin suffered.

Short of a meteorite, these are the alternatives.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 24, 2011
Weak article. It tries to take on too many topics and gives the reader the sense that the author is wandering around and the editor is taking a smoke break. The connection about how global warming has anything to do with whether English will survive is obscure (mainly because there is no connection between these two topics.)
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 24, 2011
The Saami of northern Scandinavia have hundreds of words for different types of snow and we have hundreds of different words for tree eg oak, elm, ash, birch, pine...
3 / 5 (2) Oct 24, 2011
Languages only change or are forgotten and disused; rather people and people groups that speak those languages die.

You may call Latin a "dead language" but it's still around, people still use it, and death only refers to the fact that the language doesn't change in its use and meaning. If you mean "Will English die?" in the same way, then maybe so--the only other alternative is to be lost in the mists of time and memory.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 24, 2011
There are exactly two alternatives: either the Western way of life and economy doesn't hold and the Chinese, the Arabs, the Indians, or the South Americans take over.

The Chinese invest a lot of time, effort, and money into learning english. It keeps me employed here. They dont have kiddie sports leagues, they dont have band camp, they dont have Boy Scouts or nuthin. but they do have after school english, and it is a required course. Unlike some nations, the chinese casually Sinocize any word as it is, and rarely bother to give it a Chinese name. They do use characters that are somewhat relevant to the meaning, but sometimes not at all. Just teh sound is important. Example: Sofa is Shafa, Coffee is Kafei.
4.4 / 5 (7) Oct 24, 2011
Modern English will die in the same way as the Anglo-Saxon Old English has died.
not rated yet Oct 25, 2011
"dead language" and extinct are different, the use of Latin as a dead language is to stop misinterpretation due drift in the meaning of words, think of the meaning of being "gay" now versus 50 or 100 years ago, this doesn't happen to Latin. An extinct language is one that is no longer used.

If the strength of a language is in its vitality, show me a Chinese (Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese etc), Indian (Bengali, Gujarati, Kashmiri, Nepali, Urdu etc) version of Urban Dictionary
3 / 5 (4) Oct 29, 2011
Modern English will die in the same way as the Anglo-Saxon Old English has died.
I don't think so. The reason Old English died is because there weren't many books in it. English changed a lot UNTIL printing began. It really hasn't changed all that much since Shakespeare but it changed profoundly between Chaucer and Shakespeare. Print was the key.

3 / 5 (4) Oct 29, 2011
think of the meaning of being "gay" now versus 50 or 100 years ago,
Changed twice. One hundred years ago the Gay Life was prostitution.

not rated yet Oct 29, 2011

IYO, what are the possible ramifications of ubiquitous translation software/devices? What will happen to the collective mind of humanity where no one is bilingual? I'll leave it to others to discuss the likelihood of this eventuality.
4 / 5 (4) Oct 29, 2011
A more appropriate question would be: in what ways will the English language change and over what timeframe? Did Old English actually die? Or did it evolve?

We like to look at languages historically as though they lived/died/changed on some sort of fixed timeframe. In reality, languages are extremely fluid, changing all around you every day. And there are many elements to the language, including vocabulary, accent, regional dialects, spoken vs. written language, and the list goes on.

So, the real question in my mind would be: how much time will need to pass before the English language that is commonly spoken today is absolutely unrecognizable to a "native" English speaker? Because there is no doubt, as some have said, that said event will transpire.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 29, 2011
Thanks, Hush1. I asked you because I know that you are very perceptive to the advantages of bilingualism on improving cognition and epistemology. I should have phrased my question differently.

What are the specific cognitive advantages that multilingualism brings? What can we do to mitigate the loss that translation software will bring to the individual? Could there be another technology that could replace the lost cognitive advantage?
not rated yet Oct 30, 2011
Chinese[they] dont ...have nuthin. - bredmond

Beg to differ...

Former world ranked 127th here.
It is beyond sport:
I assure you it is philosophy and art as well.
The play down and somewhat derogatorily termed: Ping-pong.
Table tennis.

maybe you dont understand. i am saying they dont have any extracurricular activites for children. The primary extracurricular activity is english learning. All other activities are insignificant compared to english learning. In fact, it is not just the major extracurricular activity, but it is also required in their mainstream education.

By the way, i know i myself use shorthand and dont spellcheck, but i had to heavily infer what you were talking about. My best guess was that the chinese have no contribution to global language or something like that. Whatever it was exaclty, i am sure it is not what i was saying.
not rated yet Oct 30, 2011
I was looking for an answer that was more specifically neurological. I'm not sure that I understand the physical description of what you mean by "associations."
5 / 5 (1) Oct 30, 2011
The word "associations" as used in psychology. If you have studied psychology the use of the word makes sense in the context of my replies to you.

Could you please help me with a link? I /have/ studied psychology. You have exposed the problem here. I'm looking for science, not philosophy. Sorry, but I respectfully consider neurology to be science, and psychology to be an approximation or a philosophy.

I know you have a theory that explains "associations" in a physical way. I'm merely asking for you explain how multilingualism enhances the physical structure of the brain, because I honestly think you have a logical answer. I swear I've seen you present it on a different thread. I'm not trying to pick a fight with you, or even argue anything. I think I'm just not asking the right question, a question I thought you had touched on earlier in another thread.
not rated yet Oct 31, 2011
It seems to me that learning an international language for communication, like the project for a world association of an international language, would be more productive than each human trying to speak every language.
I agree that speaking more than one language is a positive thing for the mind and brain, this is supported conclusively.

I am not sure if you were using hyperbole when you referred to all people using all languages.

Do you mean that no languages should be allowed to die? Or that everyone should be multilingual?

Please clarify. I think the misunderstanding is probably my shortcoming.
not rated yet Oct 31, 2011
Will the English language ever die?
I sure hope so.
English is a language that impairs thinking and new ideas.
English is the language of tyranny.
If you learn english your brain suffers.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 31, 2011
Will the English language ever die?
I sure hope so.
English is a language that impairs thinking and new ideas.
English is the language of tyranny.
If you learn english your brain suffers.

This is surely an opinion based on negative personal experience and zero fact. Don't waste our time with ethnocentric hogwash (see if you know that word). That's more appropriate for the political opinion sights.

Now, had you said that some languages are present in, and reinforce certain beliefs and practices of, specific cultures - then maybe you'd have a point.

To whit, there is not a culture you can point to that does not have some negative characteristics. And since the set of all cultures encompasses the set of all languages, your supposition is indeed false.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 31, 2011
Modern English will die in the same way as the Anglo-Saxon Old English has died.
I don't think so. The reason Old English died is because there weren't many books in it.

I'm afraid you've entirely missed my point, which was that English won't die as such, but will slowly morph into something else over time (centuries), which will be as unrecognizable to us today as is Old English (which evolved into modern English).

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