An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers, especially if the language has no living descendants. In contrast, a dead language is “one that is no longer the native language of any community”, even if it is still in use, like Latin. Languages that currently have living native speakers are sometimes called modern languages to contrast them with dead languages, especially in educational contexts.
In the modern period, languages have typically become extinct as a result of the process of cultural assimilation leading to language shift, and the gradual abandonment of a native language in favour of a foreign lingua franca, largely those of European countries.
As of the 2000s, a total of roughly 7,000 natively spoken languages existed worldwide. Most of these are minor languages in danger of extinction; one estimate published in 2004 expected that some 90% of the currently spoken languages will have become extinct by 2050.
Normally the transition from a spoken to an extinct language occurs when a language undergoes language death by being directly replaced by a different one. For example, many Native American languages were replaced by English, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch as a result of colonization.
In contrast to an extinct language, which no longer has any speakers, or any written use, a historical language may remain in use as a literary or liturgical language long after it ceases to be spoken natively. Such languages are sometimes also referred to as “dead languages”, but more typically as classical languages. The most prominent Western example of such a language is Latin, but comparable cases are found throughout world history due to the universal tendency to retain a historical stage of a language as liturgical language.
Historical languages with living descendants that have undergone significant language change may be considered “extinct”, especially in cases where they did not leave a corpus of literature or liturgy that remained in widespread use (see corpus language), as is the case with Old English or Old High German relative to their contemporary descendants, English and German.
Some degree of misunderstanding can result from designating languages such as Old English and Old High German as extinct, or Latin dead, while ignoring their evolution as a language. This is expressed in the apparent paradox “Latin is a dead language, but Latin never died.” A language such as Etruscan, for example, can be said to be both extinct and dead: inscriptions are ill understood even by the most knowledgeable scholars, and the language ceased to be used in any form long ago, so that there have been no speakers, native or non-native, for many centuries. In contrast, Old English, Old High German and Latin never ceased evolving as living languages, nor did they become totally extinct as Etruscan did. Through time Latin underwent both common and divergent changes in phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon and continues today as the native language of hundreds of millions of people, renamed as different Romance languages and dialects (French, Italian, Spanish, Corsican, Asturian, Ladin, etc.).
Similarly, Old English and Old High German never died, but developed into various forms of modern English and German. With regard to the written language, skills in reading or writing Etruscan are all but non-existent, but trained people can understand and write Old English, Old High German and Latin. Latin differs from the Germanic counterparts in that an approximation of its ancient form is still employed to some extent liturgically. This last observation illustrates that for Latin, Old English, or Old High German to be described accurately as dead or extinct, the language in question must be conceptualized as frozen in time at a particular state of its history. This is accomplished by periodizing English and German as Old; for Latin, an apt clarifying adjective is Classical, which also normally includes designation of high or formal register.
Minor languages are endangered mostly due to economic and cultural globalization and development. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant lingua francas of world commerce: English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and French.
In their study of contact-induced language change, American linguists Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman (1991) stated that in situations of cultural pressure (where populations are forced to speak a dominant language), three linguistic outcomes may occur: first – and most commonly – a subordinate population may shift abruptly to the dominant language, leaving the native language to a sudden linguistic death. Second, the more gradual process of language death may occur over several generations. The third and most rare outcome is for the pressured group to maintain as much of its native language as possible, while borrowing elements of the dominant language’s grammar (replacing all, or portions of, the grammar of the original language).
Institutions such as the education system, as well as (often global) forms of media such as the Internet, television, and print media play a significant role in the process of language loss. For example, when people migrate to a new country, their children attend school in the country, and the schools are likely to teach them in the majority language of the country rather than their parents’ native language.
Language revival is the attempt to re-introduce a recently extinct language in everyday use by a new generation of native speakers. The optimistic neologism “sleeping beauty languages” has been used to express such a hope.
Hebrew is an example of a liturgical language that has successfully been revived for everyday use. The revival of Hebrew has been largely successful due to extraordinarily favourable conditions, notably the creation of a nation state in which it became the official language, as well as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s extreme dedication to the revival of the language, by creating new words for the modern terms Hebrew lacked. Revival attempts for minor languages with no status as liturgical language typically have more modest results. The Cornish language revival is an example of a major successful language revival: after a century of effort there are 3,500 claimed native speakers; enough for UNESCO to change its classification from “extinct” to “critically endangered”. There is also being a Livonian language revival movement to promote the use of the Livonian language, with a few hundreds of people having some knowledge of it.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 02.23.2003, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.