Losing a Language

A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say

but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words

many of the things the words were about
no longer exist

[ . . . ]

W.S. Merwin, “Losing a Language”

In 2009 Unesco published an “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.” The definition of a “language” is of course variable, but the estimate it gives of some 2,500 endangered languages is nevertheless enormous. The loss of an ability to pass on stories and how they identify a people with a place–what defines a vernacular–is a devastating loss.

There are a range of projects which exist to track the world’s diminishing number of languages. Interestingly, New York is a treasure trove of languages. The Endangered Language Alliance has been formed to track them there.

Stony Brook University on Long Island keeps a library of all that can be collected on Native American languages–only a bit over half of them are still spoken today, and many of those have speakers that only number in the dozens.

I wonder, alternatively, how possible it would be to map language birth: differentiation is always occurring, though new languages–especially as new language formation is virtually always oral–are usually culturally disparaged.


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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