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What is a Dead Language?

You are probably aware that languages can die like living things, that is a problematic fact because most of the time the dying languages do not vanish just by themselves, they also take a large part of the culture with them. Linguists call this phenomenon language loss. So if you are a person who does not know how language loss happens, this will be a very short introduction to the fact of language loss. The problem of language loss, though is much more complex than what the term actually means. When we speak about the loss of something or someone we generally mean that that thing ceases to exist. In the case of language however there are two kinds of loss, these are language death and language extinction since they are closely related they are still different in terms of what happens after they are lost. Before talking about them we have to differentiate extinction and death in terms of languages.

Both of the concepts imply a similar thing, a language being ceased to exist. But that definition is too general to talk about how languages are living their afterlives so to speak and what counts as “Language death” or what counts as “language extinction”. A language that evolves naturally through history is called natural languages, and the languages that humans exposed from their birth are called native languages. Language loss as a concept happens when these native languages either evolve into different languages or are replaced by a completely different language. Generally, when we talk about dead or extinct languages we automatically think about Latin since it was one of the most famous languages of human history. What happened to Latin though, today we do not have any native speakers of Latin. Should we count Latin as a dead language or an extinct language? The answer lies within the history of the areas where these languages, in this case, Latin, has spoken and what happened to Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire. The language that we knew as Latin disappeared because, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin evolved into several other languages, which at the time of the Roman Empire these separate languages were the regional dialects of Latin. French, Spanish, Italian are the most well-known examples. Moreover, Roman Empire left us a huge amount of written works. Today no one speaks Latin as a native language but there are still speakers of the language but none of those speakers use it in their day-to-day interactions. That is the main difference between a dead language and an extinct language. The consensus among linguists says that Latin is not an extinct Language but a dead one, because of the two reasons that we have indicated. First, it has not assimilated by an unrelated language but evolved naturally into several other languages that are related to Latin, and secondly, it is still spoken and learned by scholars and priests as a scholarly profession today, due to the importance of the Roman Empire, written materials that we inherited from the Roman Empire and its areas of influence. On the other hand, an extinct language is a language that has been erased from the face of the earth. Some of the native languages of the American tribes can be given as an example of the extinct languages. These were the languages we know that existed but we do not know how they work or we partially know how they work. The most important distinction between the dead and extinct language, in terms of language loss, is the question of “How the language got lost”, and “Which language replaced it?” Over time, due to several reasons, which could be political, cultural, or even economic, these languages lost their importance and were replaced by a language that is not from the same language family but more dominant in the region of the extinct language.

The process of Language loss no matter its form (extinction or death) starts with a process called language endangerment. Linguists called these languages endangered Languages. These languages are the languages with very few native speakers under the influence of more popular languages. The reasons behind the languages become endangered are numerous and these could be political (invasions, policies, and political actions), economic (trading, the influence of wealth), or social (prestige)

All of these reasons can be seen throughout history. Political factors that cause a language to vanish are the consequences of policies and actions towards a certain language group or a group with a certain language. It may cause endangerment of the language moreover; conquests and killings of the native populations can create such an effect that will greatly affect the native society and its culture such a way that if the language in question did not have a written account that language may become extinct. The other reason is more of a combination of economic and cultural factors when a society that speaks one language encounters (this matter of encounter could be economic like trading or simply geographic) another that speaks another language, the society whose language is more dominant (can be in terms of power, population, or prestige) may affect the other language. This effect can be seen at many different levels. Due to the contact, if those groups keep their languages, these two or more sets of people may need a common communication tool to understand each other. As a result, they may create a common, more simplified language, called “pidgins” and when those pidgins develop a complex grammar they would become “creoles”. Endangerment of a language however is more of a result of a political or a cultural change. Latin, as mentioned before, is a well-known example when the Roman empire collapsed the main Latin speaking power had lost its influence and regional dialects of Latin evolved into several other related languages, in this case, Latin died and gave birth to several other languages.

However, if one of these language groups that are encountered are more influential in terms of politics, economy, or culture, their language may start to influence or replace the other languages. If we consider the fact that some languages that are endangered today do not have a written form this is still a serious threat for some languages, thankfully we now have other means to record languages. We can’t exactly know how many languages have extinct or died until today but we can safely assume that we have lost a lot. Moreover, a lot more of today's living languages are considered endangered which means we are about to lose them as well. Some scholars believe that within the current century most of the minority languages that are spoken today will be lost. But there is still a light at the end of that dark tunnel. That is the process called language revival. Language revival is the act of reviving a dead language through policies and studies of a lost language. Of course, this process is limited with the languages that we know how they work and this process needs huge amounts of careful study and resources to implement it strongly, but it is still a thing to give us hope to revive a cultural heritage. Up to this day, we have only one completely revived example, Modern Hebrew, though several other languages (e.g. some tribal languages of America and Australia, and Cornish) are in the process of revival. These examples show us without complete extinction there is still hope for the preservation of the languages.

By İlker Kerman

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