Up to a quarter of the world's existing languages are facing the threat of extinction, says UK scientists.
Seven thousand languages are spoken globally but many are disappearing and the rate of loss is accelerating. When tongues become extinct, descendents of native speakers talk of the loss of cultural heritage and history, cohesion and tradition.
However, the factors that contribute to language loss, and the parts of the world most at risk, have not been well studied.
But what is clear is that the same factors that give rise to high levels of species diversity also appear to drive language diversity.
In other words, the parts of the world with the broadest range of plants and animals also tend to have the greatest language diversity, because the same factors that drive the evolution of new species also drive the evolution of new languages. These include geographical isolation and highly specialised living conditions.
This being the case, Cambridge scientist William Sutherland and his colleagues applied the same criteria that are used to identify at-risk species to the spoken word.
These include factors such as the speaker population size, how that poulation size is changing, and the scale of geographical range they inhabit.
This has enabled them to identify those languages and those regions most at-risk, including hotspots in northern Australia, northwestern USA and Canada, the tropics and the Himalayas.
In many of these areas a toxic cocktail of small population sizes coupled with rapid economic growth, which inevitably leads to adoption of more common global languages, like English, is driving the loss of indigenous tongues.
"We need to take steps to preserve these languages," says Sutherland, "because wrapped up in them is a huge amount of cultural and historical information. There are also social impacts on the next generation who have lost a language."
If you're in a position to do so, record as much of a dying language as you can. Artificial intelligence will eventually be able to revive it by bringing up new native speakers whose parents decide they want the language of their ancestors to be revived. There is no reason for any language to be allowed to disappear altogether. David Cooper, Mon, 15th Sep 2014
Do you think that's possible though, David?
Some languages that were actively opposed by the government have had a bit of a resurgence as providing a local identity.
The purpose of language is to facilitate communication. The fewer the languages, the easier the communication. Languages die because nobody needs them (Cornish), or because they evolve (Latin), or as a result of conquest and extermination (not a good thing, but it is the conquest and extermination that are bad, not the loss of a language).
When I say record, I mean store as much detail as you can about the language in terms of its grammar and vocabulary, but also record audio of as many speakers as possible and get full translations of everything, getting them to talk about the past and to tell any traditional stories they might remember. The more of this you can get, the greater the number of idiomatic phrases and other expressions you will be able to collect, and that will make it possible some day to revive a richer version of the language than you otherwise would. In the case of many languages it is urgent and there is no opportunity to teach a next generation, so collecting the data matters now. A lot will likely still be lost, and this is inevitable once the number of speakers is down to low numbers because different people use their language in different ways, some having much more impoverished speech than others. Many subtle things will be lost, but there is no case in which we should just give up and just let the whole thing go.
It looks as though you are trying to invent German, though probably order of words the best it has not. Have you considered the advantages of structured case endings? It's easy to be poetic in Latin because the rhythm and the meaning of a sentence are not linked.
German's just as much a mess as any other natural language. Sticking the words "far" and "see" together makes the word "television", for example, but it's all done in a slapdash way. It's difficult to do it properly with most things without ending up with very long names which describe what they are and do, but there are ways round that which make things manageable. There are whole areas of vocabulary which can be built out of fundamental components but which never are in natural languages, and that's what my artificial language seeks to put right.