Sometimes Extinct Isn’t Forever

Well, one thing you’ve noticed is that between the bunch of us Gormogons, we speak over 1,000 languages. This is a good thing. Someone, maybe Napoleon, said a person who knows two languages is twice the person. Maybe—Napoleon said a lot of things and he was incredibly thin-skinned and whiny, at least when the Czar met him. But a person who knows three languages is maybe four times the person, and so on.

Maybe there is some truth to this, only because speaking a second language doubles your ability to process information; the more tongues you speak, the more you can mix and match this processing, especially if the languages are really different (as opposed to upper Sorbian and lower Sorbian).

But Google warned the Czar about the Endangered Languages Project, which is seeking to compile as much possible information on obscure languages as possible. As they say,

Experts estimate that only 50% of the languages that are alive today will be spoken by the year 2100.

The idea of providing a common resource to coordinate scholarly study and exchange ideas is overall a good thing, but the used of endangered is meant to evoke a sense of peril, like ecology. No, we are not kidding—from their site:

The disappearance of a language means the loss of valuable scientific and cultural information, comparable to the loss of a species.

Uh, no. Not at all.

Etruscan has zero speakers today. In fact, it has had zero speakers for thousands of years, but scholars can still read it. The same is true for Hittite, Phoenician, and ancient Egyptian. The loss of speakers does not mean that the information in the language is lost forever. Cicero verba scripsit quod hodie intelligimus, after all.

To compare the loss of a language to the irreplaceable loss of a species is a grotesque over-exaggeration that insults the important work of people protecting species. Someone in the Endangered Languages Project marketing department really ought to get out more, especially if he or she thinks Ionian Greek is lost forever.

And by the way, languages disappear for very simple reasons: not because the people are dying out, or are the victims of some physical or cultural genocide—they generally die out for two main reasons: (1) the language (like Latin) becomes so unmanageable that it splinters into easier-to-speak dialects that evolve into new languages or, more commonly, they don’t cut it anymore. Their website, for example, mentions Koro, “a language previously unknown to science that was documented in the mountains of northeast India. It is spoken by no more than 4000 people.” Well, probably because the folks in the mountains of northeast India decided that maybe Bengali was the better language to learn if you wanted to get a job.

English is responsible for the ongoing decay and dissipation of (perhaps) most of the world’s languages. And why not? It is easy to learn, is incredibly flexible, is superbly suited for technology programming, precise enough for business and legal applications, rapid enough for international airline travel, and is well-supported by a network of hundreds of millions of speakers, reinforced by books, motion pictures, television shows, and more. English is a great way to go, and some countries (such as Korea and Sweden) make learning English mandatory for students.

Yes, 50% of the world’s languages are fading because they cannot do what English can do. This isn’t bad for English—it’s very good for English. Remember—the people aren’t dying out; just the languages that don’t cut it in today’s world. Just like they always did. Hey, whatever happened to Aramaic anyway? Right—it wasn’t as useful as Hebrew.

And sometimes a diminished language population is essential. One of the Czar’s favorite examples is the Navajo language. “Dude,” someone is saying right now, “Did you know the military used Navajo in World War II to confuse the Japanese, who were unable to understand it? Jeez, man—there are more speakers of Klingon than there are Navajo speakers, and those guys helped us win the war!” All true, but remember the reason the military opted to use Navajo was because—ahem—there were so few speakers of it. Hell, we could have used Koro. If Navajo was an easy-to-use and widespread language, we wouldn’t have used it to confound the Japanese, right?

Count your blessings, English speakers. You picked a good—in fact, great—language to learn. Spare no tears because Talysh has only a few thousand speakers left. They’re all learning English. Imagine why.

About The Czar of Muscovy

Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia by upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.