don't kill languages;
often conjures up the image of reduction of diversity, a trend
towards homogenization that affects every aspect of a community's
culture, including its language. Several linguists fear that within
a century or so the total number of languages spoken around the
world will be reduced from close to 6,700 today to around 200.
The biggest losers in this competition will be the indigenous
languages spoken in territories colonized by Europe over the past
four centuries. The winners are the languages of the leading colonial
powers (English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish), those of major
industrial powers (which makes Japanese very safe), those spoken
as vernaculars by millions of people (varieties of Arabic, Chinese,
and Indic languages, for example), and those Third World languages
that function as national or regional lingua francas (such as
Swahili in East Africa).
some linguists have identified hegemonic languages such as English
and French as killer languages, this is a misconception. Languages
do not kill languages; speakers do. A language is transmitted
and maintained in a community through continuous use. Languages
die when their speakers give them up. It is like having a population
whose members refuse to produce offspring. The only difference
is that speakers do not deliberately refuse to use their languages
but are often compelled to speak other languages that offer practical
or material advantages: being integrated in a mainstream society,
finding a good job, and getting opportunities for socioeconomic
ascension. Speakers could, of course, also keep their ancestral
languages, but often wind up speaking only the more advantageous
language-especially if they move out of their native communities.
Then their knowledge of their ancestral languages suffers a form
of atrophy. When more and more speakers adopt this behavior and
only the older generations speak them for some traditional communicative
functions, linguists say such languages fall into attrition. As
the older speakers die, so do the languages.
do populations find themselves in such predicaments? For the past
400 years, European colonization has been the main culprit. This
is true especially in settlement colonies, where Europeans came
to develop other Europes outside Europe. In each such territory,
the language of the colonial ruler prevailed as the main language
of industry and economy. Pressure increased on immigrants and
natives to acquire that language in order to function in the new
world order. Population reduction caused by illnesses brought
from the Old World and wars with the colonizers, coupled with
opportunities for socioeconomic integration and speakers' flights
from their native communities, have precipitated these languages'
course toward extinction.
Such linguistic consequences are an old concomitant
of the history of mankind, which is marked by layers of population
movements and domination. It may be faster today, but it has been
there all along and explains why only remnants of Celtic languages
are still spoken, and barely so, in France, Spain, Portugal, and
the United Kingdom (e.g., Breton, Welsh, Gaelic). Increased awareness
of this predicament has led linguists to treat languages-and rightly
so-as natural resources that must be protected. Programs have
been launched to preserve some moribund languages and maintain
linguistic diversity, more or less like protecting biotic diversity
in an ecological niche. But preservation in literary productions
and linguistic descriptions is quite different from revitalization.
Languages that have prevailed over others show substantial vitality.
Among the questions that must be addressed is why some people
give up their ancestral languages-it's usually not because they
wish to do so. In a way, such people are victims of globalization;
but one can also argue that they reflect advantageous adaptations
to changing ecologies-as cynical as this observation may sound.
Once scholars decide to face them from such an ecological perspective,
challenges for revitalizing moribund languages become monumental.
Mufwene, PhD'79, is professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics.
He is author of The Ecology of Language Evolution (Cambridge,