How to save a dying language? Speak it!


“In a highly connected global age, languages are in die-off. Fifty to 90 percent of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken today are expected to go silent by century’s end. We live under an oligarchy of English and Mandarin and Spanish, in which 94 percent of the world’s population speaks 6 percent of its languages.”

(How to save a dying language,


This is as sad as true. I am myself a native speaker of a dying language, Sardinian, and I say this with a lot of sadness, because I know that, despite the weak efforts to avoid it, we are quickly heading toward this result. A language is the base of communication, so we should not allow languages to die but, if for a fight to be possible you need two people, the same is true about communication; if these two people don’t want to use Sardinian, for laziness, shame, or for whatever reason, then this language will soon be lost.

We could say that there is nothing to be sad or worried about, it is natural: animals succumb to extinction and languages die, it has always happened and it will keep happening. But what no one wants to admit is that animals are getting extinct at a rate maybe 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the background rate, and that languages are dying faster as well, driven by the speakers’ desire for following the majority and for speaking the current linguae francae.

It is sad to be part of the generation which still holds a grip on the doomed vernacular language; you know it is going to disappear, but it is still there. That must have been the feeling the last speakers of some aboriginal dialects tried to communicate through their eyes when they were being recorded by the linguists in Australia. It must be heartbreaking to know that, after losing everything your life was based on – your lifestyle, your traditions, your land – also your language will be gone with you. Certainly, that was what I received while watching those recordings.

It may sound an exaggeration to read 1984 and learn about the Party working to destroy the English language (the Oldspeak) by creating a new, purged one (the Newspeak), more suited to its needs. We may smile at the idea, but is it not what it is happening constantly to our languages? At the very least, this is now happening to languages like Italian, where few people speak the language natively, and those who do are not concerned with preserving it. It is not a matter of not having an official institution in charge of that, something like the Real Academia for Spanish, or the Académie françaisefor French; we have the Accademia della Crusca, no excuse there. The problem is that these institutions work in a theoretical plan, then it is the responsibility of everyone of us to use the language in a responsible way.

As a linguist, I know perfectly that to speak a language correctly doesn’t mean to always sound as a written book (I am talking about a good one), or to be impossible to understand, but to adapt your language to the person to whom you are talking. But I also know that borrowing plenty of foreign words to sound modern and cultivated is both armful for our own language and an useless effort. Very often, not only the words we already have are perfectly able to express what we mean, but the ones we borrow don’t even mean the same in the first place (footing is what I would call “a wonderful example”.)

If the idea of a dying language was not enough to make me mad, then I read several articles celebrating the creation of new languages, and I ask myself “Why?” Honestly, there are plenty of natural languages, and most of us don’t even bother trying to learn one at all. But then, a writer, or a director, invents a language for aesthetic purposes, and plenty of people study it and become fluent. We are not talking about an artificial language created with communication purposes, like Esperanto, which was created to facilitate communication (and to destroy interpreters, that’s true, but still); here we are talking about languages created only to add something exotic to a novel. Several of them – including Klingon, Elvish, Navi, Valyrian and Dothraki – come immediately to mind, but there are more. To me, they are as pointless as designer dresses that are made out of chocolate and melt on the catwalk. Not only these languages are created for no reason, but more disappointing still, plenty of people study them and become fluent, people that often share the same mother tongue and could easily focus on learning that one properly and using it to communicate!

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1 Comment

  1. “Il sardo: non bisogna parlarne, bisogna parlarlo” | Une belle infidèle!

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