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Language Maintenance, Shift, and Death

People have been using languages for centuries. Time and history turned to be, figuratively saying, executors of languages. A variety of languages was lost in the past and present epochs. One may presume that the story of the Tower of Babel and one tongue may be an outcome of the present situation with languages dying. Some argue that it is a positive shift when people are able to communicate with the help of one or even five languages. Nevertheless, when God decided to “scatter the people over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 10. 1-32), they managed to gather knowledge about the world and keep it in languages that they used. If language diversity stops to exist, a great deal of human knowledge will be lost. Language is a product of human consciousness and a reflection of the material and spiritual life.

The paper operates the following key terms: language death, shift, loss, revival, and maintenance. There is lack of precise technical terms to describe these processes; therefore, metaphoric expressions are used. For example, languages cannot actually die or be lost. Languages are not living organisms. Still, the choice of words shows an attitude of people toward their mother tongues. In consciousness, people embrace languages as living substances that develop, shift, and die. What is more, Friedrich Nietzsche understood language as a system of metaphors. As Ferdinand de Saussur (1959) defined, language is a “system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas” (10).

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Languages Around the World

It should be mentioned that every language reflects different ideas about the same things because every nation that speaks its own tongue describes the reality differently. By way of example, the notion of snow is defined by a hundred words by Eskimo. The basic perception of colors varies in some languages. In English, there is light blue and dark blue; in Russian, they use two different words in order to mark the shades of blue. Unfortunately, one of the prices of globalization is that certain languages dominate, while others are dismissed from minds. David Harrison published a book under the title “When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge.” The phrase “the erosion of human knowledge” emphasizes the idea that the whole world of concepts is lost when a language dies. In this context, it is fascinating how the smallest unit of language that is a word is similar in its form to a world. Languages hold worlds.

Language is one of the most incredible things that people do. According to Noam Chomsky, the ability to learn and use language is coded in genes. On every continent inhabited by people, one may hear sounds of languages. In Asia, Africa, America, Europe, and Australia, there is a variety of about six thousand languages. In literature published after 1980, this number varies up to ten thousand languages (Crystal, 2014, p. 3). It is because there are so many dialects that one simply cannot calculate all tongues. Mark Janse and Sijmen Tol (2003) study language death and language maintenance. According to their research, over the last 500 years, half of all languages died. There is a dire theory that only 600 languages may survive in the foreseeable future. What is more, Aniko Hatoss (2013) reflects the matter of rapid shift and decline of languages, saying that in the twenty-first century “130 languages have less than 50 speakers and only remain in limited use by older speakers” (p. 73). The present occurrences of language shift and death are unprecedented. This constitutes that language maintenance is an issue of global importance.

Language Maintenance

Karen A. Roesch (2012) uses in her work the term language maintenance in order to “refer to the preservation of a speech community’s ancestral language from generation to generation” (p. 1). Herman Batibo (2005) understands language maintenance as “a situation in which a language maintains its vitality even under pressure” (p. 102). For a situation of language maintenance, it is optional that children learn a native language of other dominant cultures. What is important is that the number of speakers is stable. Speakers also show language loyalty.

However, language policies present one of the main factors of language death. For example, in the nineteenth century, the United States applied the “English Only” policy for the purpose of forcing English among Native Americans. As the result, the diversity of tribe languages was lost. However, such extreme circumstances may contribute to the reawakening of language loyalty, emphasized by a feeling of ethnic identity. Ethnic identity is a basis for language maintenance, and even during the process of language shift, a tongue may be preserved. If properly maintained, “ongoing processes of language shift are halted or even reversed, thereby resulting in revitalization” (Brenzinger, 1992, p. 3).

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When a language is under a threat of dying, it is considered to be an endangered language. Stephen Wurm developed a ?ve-grade scale that illustrates a ranking of endangered languages as follows: potentially endangered, endangered, seriously endangered, moribund, and extinct (Mosely, 2007). The proper system of language maintenance may help the language survive. In this case, David Crystal (2014) specifies the factors of revival with some examples:

– prestige of the language in a society (revival of Welsh and Basque);

– developed economy and prosperity of a community (Catalonian);

– strong system of legislation (acts of the European Union);

– language of education at regional or national levels;

– literacy.

Language maintenance means “taking active measures to counter language shift [and] is referred to as fostering language maintenance and/or language revitalization” (Dwyer, 2011). The point is that when language is endangered, it is recommended to apply it in the process of education. The stress is placed on means of creating opportunities for young generations to learn a language and ensure its safety. Seriously endangered languages require expansion of their domain of use. When language is moribund or extinct, it should be documented. Data capture includes documentation of the whole spectrum of language: symbolic forms, ceremonies, metaphors, and others.

As it was mentioned above, language identity is important. This is one of the reasons that explains how North American Indian languages have survived. There are communities where children continue to learn the language of the tribe. However, these communities are “either geographically remote (such as Attikamek Cree) or protected by strong social boundaries (such as Picuris and Santo Domingo Pueblos)” (Mosely, 2007, p. 2). It was language identity that united the Basque community to revive the Basque language. People who speak Basque populate the mountainous areas of southern France and northern Spain. Almost thirty years ago, this language could hardly be heard anywhere but for mountain villages. People feared that their language would stop to exist. As a result of active maintenance, “among a population of about 3 million in the Basque region … an estimated 700,000 people speak Basque today” (Sell, 2009). Maintenance was applied on every available level. At the cultural level, there is an annual festival that people organize to celebrate the Basque language. Basque is promoted through education. Language is taught in private and public schools to children and adults. Religion plays its role in revival as well. Local churches have Sunday masses accompanied by Basque music. Even food is used in the process: national specialties, such as black cherry jam and milk cheese, may be found on the week’s food market. Despite all these actions, France does not support the Basque language. Basque is recognized as a regional language that does not have the official status. Nevertheless, the community proceeds to maintain the language and use it on a regular basis.

Another interesting example of language revival is the story of the Czech language. A written form of the language is rather archaic. It serves as a vivid example of its history. In the sixteenth century, the language was successfully documented with the publication of the Bible. It was completed in Czech and served as a basis for literary references later. After the end of Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, German was the language that almost replaced Czech. A century later, incredible efforts were spent to restore the tongue. Therefore, the Royal Czech Society of Sciences was created. This helped revive the language with the use of written documents.

Other cases of revival include such languages as Puyuma, Bunun, Hebrew, Ocitan, and Maori. Apart from the measures taken by communities, language resurrection may also be an act of political will when a government wishes to keep the identity of the whole nation. These examples illustrate that endangered languages have a chance to be revived. In order to reverse the tide of disappearance, proper language maintenance is required. Otherwise, language shift becomes crucial and languages may be forgotten. People value languages. When words of a native language are no longer spoken, the deeds and thoughts of nations are lost forever.

Language Shift

A notion of language shift has been studied since the twentieth century. There is still no universal definition of the term. Sometimes, language shift is considered to be a “complex and affected phenomenon, motivated and stimulated by accumulative force of historical, cultural, economic, social, and psychological factors” (Nawaz, Umer, Anjum, & Ramzan, 2012, p.73). It is also important to note that “language shift refers to gradual displacement of one language by another” (Majidi, 2013, p. 34). The process involves changing patterns of language use due to the fact of language contact. Language shift finds its particularization in external factors that change certain structural elements: the appearance of new words, pronunciation of sounds, and emergence of new grammatical forms. For example, in “the Kiwai language of Papua New Guinea, the system of ?rst person singular and plural actors vs. patients has largely been lost through contact with neighboring languages which lack that feature” (as cited in Mosely, 2007).

There are two main scenarios that describe an outcome of languages in contact. Such relationships are either coordinate or superordinate. The term coordinate conveys the idea of two languages coexisting together on equal grounds. This is possible when people learn languages of each other and use them in the process of communication. When a more prestigious language is learned instead of a native tongue, superordinate relationships take place. The fist scenario ensures bilingualism; the second leads to language shift and death and leaves no place for language maintenance. Sometimes, elements of one language affect another and change its structure to some extent, as the Celtic language affected English. Celts were under the dominance of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and Celtic was lost to English; however, many Celtic elements penetrated the dominant language. Presently, there are a number of names of geographic objects that prove this statement. Celtic words bre and pen correspond to the English word hill; so, Brill, which is in Buckinghamshire, actually stands for bre and hyll. Further research shows that the the Gaulish language had a great influence on French. Gauls inhabited France before the Romans conquered the territory. The native language left its elements in French, for example, the manner of counting where quatre-vingt, that is eighty relates to a formula that Gauls used to count “4×20” (four multiplied by twenty). It is obvious that language reflects the way of thinking; and that is why it is important to preserve language and promote bilingualism where it is possible.

Language shift is a part of a bilingual surrounding. A dominant language usually suppresses the subordinate language until the latter completely disappears. It is necessary to emphasize that changes in language are usually caused by external or internal factors. The external causes are economic and socio-political development, the impact of various historical events, progress in science and technology, cultural development, and others. External factors are extremely powerful. They determine changes that occur in a language and have influence on existence or disappearance of the language. Language exists as long as there are people who use it, the native-speakers. Language dies when people disappear and that may occur due to loss of independence, assimilation with a politically dominant nation in a multilingual country, or physical extermination. There are many examples of dead languages that fit the pattern. Therefore, at the beginning of the second millennium BC, the Sumerian language disappeared; in the first century B.C., the Assyrian-Babylonian (Akkadian) language spoken by people of Mesopotamia and Assyria died; at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Prussian, the language of the southeast Baltic, and Elbe, the West Slavic language, disappeared. The rapid development of some languages in particular periods is also linked to external factors: liberation from colonial rule, the economy and culture, political recognition at the international level, contacts with other countries, etc.

If during the process of language shift no actions are undertaken to maintain languages, tongues disappear. “Setting aside the rare cases of language extinction through genocide … all instances of language death are the result of language shift” (Brenzinger, 1992, p. 3).

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Language Death

Campbell defines language death as “the loss of a language due to gradual shift to the dominant language contact situations” (Janse & Tol, 2003). However, this explanation lacks a few factors. One should also include language genocide and natural disasters. David K. Harrison (2008) describes language death as a process when “ small tongues get abandoned by their speakers, who stop using them in favor of a more dominant, more prestigious, or more widely known tongue” (p. 5). It should be taken into account that there are cases when even dead languages may be used in restricted domains, like Latin, or languages preserved in order to mark membership in a group via phrases and songs. Since Latin was lingua franca in the past, it has a number of written documentation, great works of literature, and history of the Roman Empire to keep it from total oblivion. Apart from this, language is dead when it is no longer spoken.

Due to various reasons, many languages disappeared in ancient times: Akkadian, Ugaritic, Saka, Sogdian, Khotanese, Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Aramic, Ancient Macedonian, Faliscan, Celtiberian (Celtic), Luwian, and others. Although the notion of language death is not new, “the disappearance of any one language constitutes an irretrievable loss to mankind” (as cited in Crystal, 2014). David Crystal presents a script for language death. The fact is that when there is only one person left who can speak a certain language, that language is already dead as a means of communication. The last person preserves the knowledge of the past, cultural elements, and world image created by the language. Language may be recorded; however, even visual or voice representation does not make language alive. The idea is that language should be spoken.

The saddest part of language death is that even if there are written remains of the language, for example, an ancient poem created in a dead language, the beauty of it is lost. Translation does not reflect the power of an original tongue. Joseph Campbell noted that even translations of the most basic texts fail to convey the meaning sometimes: “When you translate the Bible with excessive literalism, you demythologize it. The possibility of a convincing reference to the individual’s own spiritual experience is lost” (“Follow your bliss”).

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The idea is that languages should be maintained because they hold enormous parts of the reality. Therefore, official policies should promote multilingual surroundings that make people richer, instead of the cruel deprivation of native tongues.

Language Birth

The key to language survival is communication. Language death is a process of language decline, and there is the opposite act when language grows. Language may be born. The past century proved that languages may even be artificially created for certain purposes. For example, Esperanto is spoken by millions of people who wish to avoid subjective factors of the global language that is officially used in many countries (like English). There are also languages formed to add realism to fictional books and movies. The most dynamic synthetic language is Klingon.

Originally, the Klingon language could be heard in an American film franchise Star Trek. It is amazing that the language became popular since Klingons have never existed as a nation. It is simply the power of imagination that helped produce such a language. According to the author, Dr. Okrand, Klingon is not based “on any particular language, but drew on …knowledge of how language works” (“Development and use of the Klingon language”). Klingon has its own grammar and vocabulary along with a complete phonetic system. During filming, actors were trained to pronounce all sounds with proper intonation patterns. What is more, Dr. Okrand published The Klingon Dictionary to help people master this language. It was sold in the amount of 300,000 copies all over the world (“Development and use of the Klingon language”).

The most powerful instrument of Klingon promotion is the Internet. Klingon has a great level of maintenance as in the year 1992 the Klingon Language Institute was founded (“Development and use of the Klingon language”). In order to establish the cultural status of Klingon, some famous works were translated into this language, including Hamlet. The language is supported by numerous conferences and additional book publications: “a second edition of The Klingon Dictionary was published in 1992, and the reference book has been translated into German, Czech, Italian, and Portuguese” (“Development and use of the Klingon language”). This has illustrated the prestige of the language. One may wonder about the reasons for this interest. People enjoy talking to each other using Klingon. Meanwhile, real languages with rich cultural and historic backgrounds disappear.


Language is a system that people use in order to share information with each other. Like any system, language has its own stages: maintenance, shift, and death. Language is considered to be alive if it is spoken. Therefore, the key factor of language survival is communication. There are a number of causes that affect the ability to use language, for example, official policies or natural disasters. When circumstances of language use change, language shifts as well. If no measures are undertaken and a tongue is not maintained during the process of shift, the language dies. With efforts, it is possible to revive languages. Still, the data shows that the processes of language death and shift occur rapidly. It is hard to make precise prognosis about the future of world’s languages. There are also cases when an artificial language appears and spreads as a means of communication between people around the world. Therefore, the conclusion can be drawn that languages will continue to disappear until proper maintenance is promoted.



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