Why Preserving Endangered Languages Matters
As time progresses, history inevitably moves forward. Yet, in its wake, it can inadvertently leave behind fragments of language and culture. These elements risk being irretrievably lost unless we make concerted efforts to preserve them. Such a loss can profoundly impact entire cultures, erasing unique identities and rich heritages.
World Endangered Writing Day, January 23, commemorates the importance of celebrating languages around us while also working toward ensuring that scripts around the world—and the languages they represent—will not be forgotten.
According to a shocking article by The Guardian last year, nearly half of the world’s 7,000 languages are at risk of extinction by the end of this century. Meanwhile, 90% of the world’s more than 300 alphabets face extinction. With each loss, we also lose a rich cultural history and identity.
Aligning with the events of World Endangered Writing Day, this article will call attention to the threats and challenges facing many of our world’s languages and explore why preserving our diversity of language matters—and what parts everyone can play to help in that preservation effort.
Why Preserving Endangered Languages Matters
The past century of globalization has streamlined many traditions and processes around the world that were previously unique. It is a significant reason why, in the last 125 years, English has gone from being the third-most spoken language globally to being at the top. But this is not an article about English. Instead, it is about languages increasingly threatened by increasing uniformization.
A language is more than just words. It represents the lives of the people who speak and write it. The connotations, linguistic history, and emotions associated with the words are all-important for those who use and identify with the language.
In the words of Professor Megan Davis, Chair of the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues, saving indigenous languages is “crucial to ensure the protection of the cultural identity and dignity of indigenous peoples and safeguard their traditional heritage.”
It’s Important for Everyone
As we examined in a recent All Things Global webinar, everyone should care about languages being threatened for three distinct reasons:
- Cultural Heritage. Languages build a connection to a culture’s history and ancestry. Preserving a language at risk of extinction means preserving its traditions, stories, and wisdom.
- Linguistic Diversity. A broad array of languages means a diversity of perspectives. It also invites a broadened dialogue thanks to greater richness in thought, literature, and expression.
- Social Inclusion. Preserving an endangered language promotes understanding and tolerance of the people who speak it, thus offering a voice to communities that might otherwise be marginalized.
Think about it in the context of untranslatable words. We all share a basic understanding of modern life. But words like the German Feierabend, the Danish Hygge, and the Urdu Goya require entire sentences to explain. Similarly, indigenous and endangered languages broaden our perspectives on how different cultures experience the world around them.
However, it is easy to let a language pass into extinction. Put simply, it will always be more convenient to push one’s own language over others out of convenience or a belief that it is superior to others. It is also why, even though more than 60% of the world can at least converse in multiple languages, only 15% to 20% of the United States (who need no other language than their own) can say the same.
To be sure, language has the power to transcend cultural boundaries. But that power also makes it dangerous because it risks losing the connections and connotations that one’s own language can evoke. And that is nowhere more strongly felt than when it comes to alphabets and endangered writing.
The Role of Native Scripts and Alphabets in Cultural Heritage
The significance of the written word is undeniable. An alphabet is the visual representation of language. It enables us to communicate with each other in ways that will not get lost. Indeed, the argument can be made that the written word is the most important and far-reaching technology available to humans, serving as the foundation for virtually every communication we use today.
Writing is not just a means of expression. It formalizes that expression, enabling us to share information in lasting ways. We could share the information in this article as part of a talk or a personal conversation. But by writing it down, we ensure its distribution across a vast web of audiences, now and in the future.
That, then, is the core value of native scripts and alphabets. Without them, the history and culture of different people become impossible to record. A lot of knowledge may not have reached us as oral history. Only through the written word do we follow the same lessons, teachings, and understanding as the generations before us who read the same words.
Language is also self-expressive. Depending on the culture, letters have mystical meanings. They can be connected with physical rituals or change meaning based on how they were written down. They are, above all, representations of cultures that seek to express themselves and pass on their teachings continually. Losing that cultural piece of any language is devastating; preserving it, on the other hand, is well worth the effort.
A Case Study of an Endangered Language
The world is home to more than 7,000 languages, 6,000 of which are considered indigenous. One of them loses its last speaker every week and effectively goes extinct. In 2019, a linguist shared a personal experience with one such example. The language in this case was Naati, an indigenous language spoken by only one person on the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Its last speaker was fluent in plenty of the local dialects; his fear, however, revolved around the cultural implications of losing his forebearers’ language.
Because he was the last speaker, much of that knowledge has already been lost. Also, we know of many other examples where the loss of a language led to forced cultural assimilation into its larger counterpart. The same linguist studying Naati also recounted Lulamogi, a Ugandan dialect. When the language was lost, it impacted how local tribes could trap and eat white ants. Without the language to describe the various methods used by their ancestors, they simply began to lose their effectiveness in the age-old practice.
What It Takes to Preserve an Endangered Language
The world is full of stories like the above. Fortunately, no one is powerless in the quest to preserve as many endangered languages and alphabets as possible. Participating in the World Endangered Writing Day is a great start. So are passion projects like the 2013 effort to dub Star Wars movies in Navajo dialects.
But the opportunities go much further. Colleges and universities are now undertaking concerted efforts to preserve languages. The United Nations has created a special council with the same goal. Everyone can do their part by seeking out, learning, and using languages that might otherwise be at risk of extinction.
Ultimately, it all boils down to a passion for language and recognizing its importance. For many, it may be difficult to resist the urge to consider a language as mere words on paper. However, in the language services industry, more than any other, we understand the numerous underlying meanings and cultural implications that every language holds.
So, let us continue to work together. Let us do what we can to stop or halt the extinction of endangered languages and alphabets. We treasure each language’s cultural diversity and nuance and are committed to preserving it in any way we can. Join the effort, and we hope to see you at one of the virtual events of World Endangered Writing Day.