The slow crumbling of Babel

The slow crumbling of Babel

In a recent book, linguist David Harrison describes how the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project stumbled upon Koro, a “hidden" language spoken by roughly 800 people in Arunachal Pradesh. As linguistic finds go, this was an untapped gold mine: Koro is still a spoken tongue, and it shares only 9% of its vocabulary with Aka, the dominant language of the region.

The discovery was a rare bright spot in the otherwise gloomy landscape of linguistic diversity. Of the 6,000-7,000 languages that exist today, half will wither away by the end of this century. Many are already endangered, including Koro itself. Earlier this year, the demise of the last speaker of Bo, an Andamanese language, was extensively chronicled. Initiatives such as the Enduring Voices Project or the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project document, through audio or video, these waning languages and their structures. Even that archival operation seems to accept, reluctantly, the eventual demise of these languages.

What does it mean when a language dies? In some cases, it is tied to brutal elimination of its speakers—as with many native American languages—and that must, without question, be condemned. Similarly, the calculated imposition of one language upon speakers of another—linguistic imperialism—is, like any imperialism, deplorable.

The majority of languages dying today, however, are doing so because of what linguists call contact-induced change. The reason for the planet’s astonishing linguistic diversity in the first place was the isolation, over the centuries, of the communities that spoke these languages. Our modern idea of progress and social evolution involves the removal of that isolation—to bring people into greater contact with one another, to mutual benefit. Inevitably, that must bring with it the erasure of less common?dialects and languages.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis regards language as the carrier of culture, and while that theory has been criticized, protecting the unique elements of various cultures is certainly important. But that is not the same as keeping languages alive on artificial support: Latin as a spoken tongue died of natural causes, yet the plays of Plautus and Seneca remain available to us. Ideas and knowledge are worth preserving; it matters more that they are communicated, rather than in what language they are communicated.

Should dying languages be wholly preserved? Tell us at