Slip of the tongue

18th November 2005 at 00:00
One thousand of the world's languages have fewer than a dozen speakers, which means they are about to disappear. Does it matter? Emphatically yes, says Michael Church

It's easy to get romantic about languages on the verge of extinction.

People were doing this a century ago over the Eskimo language Inuktitut - after one observer noticed that it had two words for "snow", another claimed to notice six, and it then got inflated to 60 - but this was really just a myth. On the other hand, Inuktitut has many words doing the job of the English "know" - which even French differentiates into "savoir" (as in knowing a fact) and "connaitre" (as in knowing a person). Inuktitut has words to distinguish between "knowing from experience", "knowing how to do something", "knowing about something", "not being ignorant of something", and "no longer being unaware of something" - plus several other kinds of knowing. Inuktitut is a very subtle language.

However, it may not last much longer. Like other local languages in the Canadian Arctic, Inuktitut is now mostly spoken by old people; the danger signal for any language comes when children stop speaking it, and never have children had more incentive to immerse themselves in the aggressor-language of New York and Hollywood - the language of money, power, and, most crucially, teenage fashion.

About 6,700 languages are spoken today, but a tiny handful of them account for most of the human race. Mandarin Chinese has 1,000 million speakers - one-sixth of the people in the world - with English and Spanish spoken as a first language by roughly 300 million each; Hindi (which is holding firm), and Russian (which is slipping) come in just below 200 million. But the lower end of the chart is saddening: more than half the world's languages have fewer than 5,000 speakers, and 1,000 have fewer than a dozen, which means they're about to die out. It's estimated that, by the end of this century 60 per cent of those 6,700 languages will no longer exist, and it could be as high as 90 per cent.

Does this matter? The answer is, emphatically, yes. Languages, like plants, need their own eco-systems to thrive, and the loss of a language is in many ways comparable to the loss of a biological species: each is a unique product of evolution, and once it has gone it cannot be recreated. Western culture - and its vehicle, the English language - is now invading every corner of the globe and threatening to destroy all other cultures in its path. We are seeing this happening in music - MTV, with its irresistible youth appeal, is killing off traditional folk music - and it's happening in exactly the same way with language.

This destruction hurts the soul. As the linguist Michael Krauss has written: "Any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism."

Each language represents a particular society, and a particular way of feeling and thinking: for those who speak it, it's the sum of human intelligence. Moreover, the way languages become dominant is governed by more factors than mere economic and military power. Arabic has become the official language of 20 countries because, as the vehicle for Islam, it was part of that religion's worldwide push. Likewise Sanskrit, the classical language of India, whose spread throughout south-east Asia was powered by the Buddhist teachings enshrined in it. And when Hern n Cortes met Montezuma, the supreme ruler of Mexico, in 1519, his conquest - and the accompanying linguistic conquest of Spanish over Nahuatl, then spreading throughout most of South America - was eased by the fact that the Mexicans believed him to be the messiah who had been promised by their religion.

The evolution of language is often full of mystery. For example, almost all languages from the Celtic fringe to the east of India - including Slavic, Germanic, Iranian and Romance ones (but not Basque, which has no known linguistic relatives) - are descended from what is known as Proto-Indo-European, which was probably spoken 6,000 years ago. The debate on how and when these languages split off from each other will doubtless go on for ever. But the real mystery lies in the wonderful complexity language can achieve, as in the verb system of the Semitic languages - Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic - which makes the verb system of Latin seem child's play. Yet the Semitic system could not be based on a simpler concept: a root which consists only of consonants, like the Arabic l-b-s, meaning "wear", or s-l-m, meaning "be at peace". This root is an abstract notion, which only comes to life when vowels are injected into it: thus salam becomes "being at peace", salima becomes "he was at peace", Muslim becomes "one who causes to be at peace", and Islam becomes "submitting to God".

Everything depends on how you elaborate s-l-m. Look back at salima, and you can work out what the l-b-s elaboration labisa means: "he wore". As the linguist Guy Deutscher observes: "It almost defies belief that such an algebraic scheme could have been conceived in any other way except through the inspiration of a gifted designer."

Formal beauty of this calibre is by no means confined to major languages - the unwritten languages of "primitive" societies are often rich in such qualities, precisely because their vocabulary is limited, and their grammar must therefore work hard to compensate. Language research is now increasingly focusing on preliterate languages, which may contain the key to how all language has evolved. Do we really want to lose them?


The two languages of Jewry nicely reflect the alternative routes between which threatened languages are perennially poised. Yiddish was originally the language of German-speaking Jews who spread out from the Rhineland to Eastern Europe in the 10th century, and its history reflects the history of Judaism itself. The word "Yiddish" is simply the German word Judisch, meaning "Jewish". Among Jews, it was often called Taytsch - another way of writing Deutsch (the German word for "German"). The name, in both versions, is a precise label.

Yiddish is a "fusion language", absorbing words from all the places where its speakers settled, but it also drew on biblical Hebrew. Many Yiddish words combined different sources; eg kesheneganev ("pickpocket") - joins the Polish keshene ("pocket") with the Hebrew word for ganev ("thief"). By the 18th century, Yiddish was the language used in Jewish settlements across Eastern Europe and in many parts of Russia. Jews had not been allowed to settle in the old Russian empire, but as Russia annexed Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania and eastern Poland, it found itself incorporating large numbers of Jewish citizens, and allowed them to carry on living in their urban ghettos and rural villages (shtetls). Later, persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe propelled many Jews westwards, with the result that large Yiddish communities established themselves in London, Argentina and New York, which by 1900 had become the centre of Yiddish culture.

Thanks to Jewish revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky, Yiddish culture had a brief rebirth in Soviet Russia, but when Stalin turned against the Jews after the Second World War, it all but died out.

Yiddish also came under attack from within the Jewish community itself. Its characteristic obliqueness and suggestiveness was thought by some militants to be effeminate, and its aura of defeat was not thought suitable for a nation struggling to define itself, as Zionists were doing at the start of the 20th century. Speaking their ancestral tongue, Hebrew, would help the Jews to walk tall in their promised land, so the nation-builders of Palestine officially cast Yiddish out. Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, wanted Jews to free themselves from the self-mockery associated with Yiddish - he wanted them to be "real men" - and, for him, real men spoke Hebrew.

But then something extraordinary happened to Yiddish: the gas chambers of Nazi Germany, which consumed those who spoke it, turned that language into something sacred. And that's how its remaining speakers treat it: a language which was once quintessentially secular, and was even regarded by Jews as profane, is now the preserve of ultraOrthodox Hasidim. Yiddish, originally formed to stress its users' separateness from the surrounding Gentile world, now performs that same function for a minority within the Jewish faith.

The linguist Mark Abley once asked a Hasidic rabbi why Yiddish was so important, and was told: "Hebrew is a harsher, more abrupt language. It does not have the same feel as Yiddish. In fact, it has long been my contention that if Yiddish, and not Hebrew, were the national language of Israel, the whole feel of the country would be different. The founders of Israel wanted to go back to the more militant Biblical Hebrew of King David. In doing so, the softer, gentler, non-violent aspects of Jewishness were lost in Israel." Seldom has a language debate had profounder political implications.


The story of Hebrew itself is astonishing. Four million people now speak it as their mother tongue, but 120 years ago virtually nobody did. It had been the language of the early Jews - the Old Testament was written in it - but as a result of their "captivity in Babylon", 2,500 years ago, Hebrew ceased to be an everyday spoken language, though it remained the sacred language of the Jewish religion.

Its logical strength and clarity - its vocabulary is based, like that of Arabic, on three-consonant roots - endeared it to the early Zionists, but it was not ready-made for modern use. As Abley observes, you couldn't ride a Hebrew "bicycle", eat Hebrew "ice cream", send a Hebrew "telegram", or fire a Hebrew "rifle", and many of its best speakers were Orthodox Jews who hated the thought of profaning it by using it in the street or at home.

Enter Eliezer Perelman, a Lithuanian Jew who went to study in Paris in 1878, where he decided to speak Hebrew to everyone he met. He went on to live in Palestine, adopting a Hebrew name, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and vowed that his son should grow up speaking only Hebrew - he even denied the boy playmates, as they would have contaminated his linguistic purity. When a later child was due to be born, he refused to let the midwife into his house until she had learned a few words in Hebrew. And when he sent his children out to buy groceries, he insisted they ask for them only in Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda also launched a Hebrew newspaper and helped create the Hebrew Language Council, whose successor, the Hebrew Language Academy, is still active in Israel today. He overcame many obstacles besides vocabulary: the pronunciation of ancient Hebrew was not known, and the prevalent speech-patterns of Yiddish required that modern Hebrew pronunciation should assimilate to it. But the Council's main achievement was to coin a host of new terms: Ben-Yehuda's Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, which comprised six volumes at his death, went on to become 17 volumes, so explosive was the growth of this semi-invented language. Not all his coinages lasted - only in his immediate family was a tomato ever called a badura - but some remained in daily use.

So thorough was its success that in 1922 Palestine's British rulers recognised Hebrew as the official language of Jews in Palestine. The state of Israel has reinforced this primacy, downgrading Yiddish in the process.

Hebrew now has a growing literary culture: constantly updating itself, the dead language lives.


Welsh-language activists watched the rise of Hebrew with interest: the Welsh word ulpan, meaning a class where immigrants learn the language, is derived from Hebrew. The story of how willpower has raised this Celtic language from near-death to aggressively vigorous life is no less remarkable. Taliesin, its first great poet, lived in the sixth century ad; the Mabinogion, containing the earliest version of the tales of King Arthur, was written in the 14th century: in literary terms, Wales once far outstripped England.

When the English took control of the Principality of Wales in 1282, a long period of enforced assimilation began. In 1536, the Act of Union disqualified Welsh speakers from official employment and established English as the language of the courts. In the 19th century, schoolteachers punished and humiliated children who spoke Welsh, and it was left to Nonconformist ministers to keep Welsh literacy alive. But, just as the Basques had their professorial champion in Jose Luis Alvarez - born in 1929, and better known by his pen-name Txillardegi, so did the Welsh, in the form of Saunders Lewis, founder and leader of the nationalist party Plaid Cymru in the 1920s.

Saunders Lewis dedicated his life to defeating the linguistic imperialism once perfectly expressed in a 19th-century Times leader: "The Welsh language is the curse of Wales. Its prevalence and the ignorance of English have excluded, and even now exclude, the Welsh people from the civilisation, the improvement, and the material prosperity of their English neighbours... Their antiquated semi-barbarous language, in short, shrouds them in darkness."

In 1936, Lewis was teaching Welsh at the University College of Wales in Swansea, when the British government turned the Lleyn peninsula into a bombing range. One building which they demolished had been venerated for centuries as a resting-place for pilgrims on the way to the holy island of Ynys Enlli. Saunders Lewis and two friends set fire to the bombing school, turned themselves in, and pleaded not guilty - in Welsh - of "malicious damage". The jury could not agree a verdict, and the case was transferred to England; the three were jailed, emerging nine months later as national heroes. Back in academe after a period on the dole, in 1962 Saunders Lewis delivered a radio lecture entitled Tynged yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language) which had an incendiary effect: others then successfully took up his fight for bilingual road signs, and for the right to speak Welsh in courts and post-offices.

Gwynfor Evans, a later leader of Plaid Cymru, threatened to go on hunger strike unless the Government agreed to found a TV channel dedicated to the Welsh language, and, when Margaret Thatcher caved in, the battle was won.

Sianel Pedwar Cymru - S4C - began broadcasting in 1982, and now fills much of the week with wall-to-wall Welsh. Pobol y Cwm - S4C's answer to Coronation Street - has racked up huge audiences. The public education system has also been thoroughly Welshed, with compulsory primary, and in many places a requirement that teachers speak Welsh.

Debate has raged over whether Welsh schoolchildren are hampered by this extra academic burden, but language enthusiasts have been heartened by research findings in several countries, to the effect that children in bilingual programmes possess greater intellectual flexibility than their monolingual counterparts. It's not generally known that JRR Tolkien drew on Welsh linguistic patterns for the invented names in The Lord of the Rings: now there's a powerful piece of advocacy.

Wales now has not only its official language, but also a national assembly; it was the battle for the former that led to the creation of the latter.

Welsh, descended from the speech of southern Britain at the time of the Roman conquest, has finally made it.

Further reading

Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley (Heinemann Pounds 14.99) - entertaining, analytical, and visits every continent.

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher (Heinemann pound;20.00) - illuminates the processes by which languages evolve and mutate.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler (HarperCollins pound;30.00)-Jlooks at the reasons why some languages rise and others fall.

Dictionary of Languages by Andrew Dalby (Bloomsbury pound;18.99)- thumbnail portraits, with statistics, of 400 languages.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today