Where Do Languages Go When They Die?

This morning, I heard an introduction to a story about to be discussed on the radio, before a phone call interrupted it. But the idea intrigued me.

The idea was this: the digital age is leading to the death of a vast number of languages.

The paper, which was to be discussed on said radio program, is Digital Language Death, by András Kornai.

Once off the phone, I went searching for the article and was even more intrigued when I read the abstract:

Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken today, some 2,500 are generally considered endangered. Here we argue that this consensus figure vastly underestimates the danger of digital language death, in that less than 5% of all languages can still ascend to the digital realm. We present evidence of a massive die-off caused by the digital divide.

As I quickly scanned Mr. Kornai’s paper, I began to think about what this could mean. Are we, thanks to the internet (Facebook, Twitter et al, and even blogging sites like WordPress) moving towards a homogenized single global language? Are we moving back to pre-Babel times?

I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this move back to a pre-Babel society; I’m sure if I did even a cursory look online I could find others’ ruminations on the topic, aside from the article linked above, of course, which does not, incidentally, actually go the Babel route.

But before getting bogged down in what others have said, I wanted to consider for a moment what I think such a shift would mean.

What happens when you loose your language and absorb another? What happens when most of the world’s languages are lost?

There are countless – many of them horrific – stories throughout history of one country dominating another, obliterating the indigenous culture, forcing the conquered to speak the conqueror’s language.

But this isn’t the same thing. It isn’t quite voluntary but it’s closer.

I think it starts with youth sharing ideas across borders. And that’s a good thing, or it can be. In the most extreme cases, it is youth sharing with the world the unfairness and the atrocities they see in their own countries, ensuring we on the outside see and know and understand and, hopefully, help.

In less dire circumstances, it can be more simply a road to greater understanding between cultures, fostered through the sharing of stories and poetry and photographs, which can lead to others seeing similarities in their own worlds and sharing these thoughts, striking up a discussion. That is how mutual respect and understanding can be deepened.

I’m not naïve, though, and I do get that it is also the way hate can be spread. And if we all understand and operate using the same language, then that hate can be spread further and faster, and can be understood and reacted to as quickly and as devastatingly as a brushfire catches and spreads through a forest.

But whether good or bad, whether feared or supported, it is happening and will continue to happen, this homogenization. This sharing of one common internet language.

What will the world look like as we head further and further down this road?

When I think of pre-Babel times, I think of nomadic peoples wandering in the wilderness. Eden at their backs, desert and scrub and open grasslands before them. The first stones of a tower ready to be constructed.

But this Biblical vision is not what we are heading towards.

Instead of being rent apart, sent in different directions speaking different languages, we are now coming together again. Not physically, but virtually. It is as though all those people who were sent away from each other are slowly, after thousands of years, coming back together, learning to speak to each other again.

Yes, we’ve had the United Nations and its precursor the League of Nations, with their translators and their negotiations for almost 100 years. This speaking to each other thing isn’t completely new. But those are diplomats. Representatives. They spoke, and speak, for their people.

What I’m thinking about is different. It is the people themselves finally finding a way to speak to each other in the same language again.

As someone who loves human history and culture, there is a large part of me that is saddened by the thought of lost languages. I’ve studied Irish, for god’s sake. I would love to think that languages, though perhaps not used to connect digitally, will continue to live, to be spoken at home, to keep history alive. But I fear this is a romantic, idealized and unrealistic notion.

So, the logical, practical thing to do is to consider and prepare ourselves for the future.

Who knows what will come of this digital homogenization? Will it bring cultural harmony and global understanding or will it fan the flames of discord and hate?

Only time will tell but no matter which way it goes, there is no stopping it from happening. Pandora’s virtual box has been opened and while there is no way to put back the demons, there is also the possibility, the hope, that some good might come of this too.


If you are interested in the study that started my morning’s rambling, I encourage you to read through it. It is quite scientific but the punchline is that there are 16 thriving digital languages which are guaranteed to survive, at least for the next hundred years:

English, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (both Brazilian and European), Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian (Bokmål), Danish, Finnish, Russian, Polish, Chinese (both Traditional and Simplified), and Korean.

 Of the additional 252 languages considered “vital,” there are only 83 found to have “unambiguously vigorous language use.” The rest are essentially considered to be “borderline.”



4 thoughts on “Where Do Languages Go When They Die?

  1. Good take on this. Fascinating when you look at what is not endangered…. Very few!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Maybe I am naive or not thinking it through long enough,but MAN 7000 languages feels way too many. I lean more towards fewer languages and better communication. (But that is my response as a communicator, not necessarily as a lover of history or art.) As someone who is struggling with communicating in a foreign language, I weigh the beauty of the way Hebrew works with the suffering i feel when I can’t make a meaningful connection with someone, and I choose the connection over the beauty.

  3. This is a great perspective, Jen. It’s great to be able to look at it from a different, and unique point of view. That makes so much sense. It’s easy for me to lean towards beauty when I’m not actually having daily trials trying to communicate. It’s all relative, and very easy to romanticize.
    As for the sheer number of languages (7000), I think that counts everything from the many indigenous languages in North America, and across Central and South America, to, for example, the distinct Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, etc.

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