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Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of the Eyak language in Alaska, died in 2008 at age 89.
The world's roughly 7000 known languages are disappearing faster than species, with a different tongue dying approximately every 2 weeks. Now, by borrowing methods used in ecology to track endangered species, researchers have identified the primary threat to linguistic diversity: economic development. Though such growth has been shown to wipe out language in the past on a case-by-case basis, this is the first study to demonstrate that it is a global phenomenon, researchers say.
Many people know about the threatened polar bear and extinct passenger pigeon, but few have heard of endangered and extinct languages such as Eyak in Alaska, whose last speaker died in 2008, or Ubykh in Turkey, whose last fluent speaker died in 1992, says Tatsuya Amano, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and lead author of the new study.
It's well known that economic growth or the desire to achieve it can drive language loss, he notes - dominant languages such as Mandarin Chinese and English are often required for upward mobility in education and business, and economic assistance often encourages recipients to speak dominant languages.
Whereas specific case studies demonstrate such forces at work, such as the transition from Cornish to English in the United Kingdom and from Horom to English in Nigeria, this is the first study to examine losses worldwide and rank economic growth alongside other possible influences, he says.