Can dying languages be saved?

Published 5:32 pm Friday, August 23, 2019

By Danny Tyree

“Took away our native tongue/And taught their English to our young…”

– from “Indian Reservation,” by John D. Loudermilk.

According to the United Nations, there are about 6,500 distinct languages (not just dialects) spoken throughout the world. And HALF of those languages are in danger of disappearing by the next century.

That’s right: one language becomes extinct every two weeks! Which means somewhere, right now, someone is smacking his forehead and muttering, “I KNEW I should have read the shopping list a day sooner.”

Sometimes languages disappear because the tribes or ethnic groups who spoke them were tiny to start with and couldn’t outlast famine, flooding or a protracted war of the sexes. (“What part of ‘uytrpkmnjnxw’ do you not understand?”)

Sometimes languages disappear because the speakers did not appreciate their uniqueness until it was too late. (“How come nobody TOLD me we are INDIGENOUS PEOPLES? I thought we were just homefolks keepin’ it real.”)

Sometimes languages disappear because the natives who utter them get exasperated by well-meaning anthropologists performing the HEIMLICH MANEUVER on them.

Sometimes languages die because they lack a few crucial phrases, such as “Don’t eat those berries over there!”

Let’s not forget assimilation. All too often, tribes in the boonies are FORCED to adhere to the customs of the national government or urban trendsetters. Glad we don’t have that problem here. (I was going to omit this paragraph, but the Environmental Protection Agency and Taylor Swift insisted.)

It is difficult for linguists to explain the urgency of the situation to good ol’ “survival of the fittest” Joe Sixpack. Yes, every extinguished language leaves mankind immeasurably poorer; but Joe would respond, “Student loans, an underwater mortgage and that GOLDDIGGER I married in Vegas left me immeasurably poorer. Waving bye-bye to a few clicks and whistles? I can do that standing on my head.”

More open-minded individuals recognize the importance of societies maintaining their identity and sharing their accumulated knowledge with the world. Indeed, among the leading causes of depression are isolation, unhealthy relationships, negative self-talk and the inability to think of 50 different words for snow.

Yes, we can benefit from the fables, metaphors and idioms of other cultures. Although, we already have ENOUGH troubling idioms, such as “shooting fish in a barrel” and “more than one way to skin a cat.” Can we stand all the high jinks that ensue when we finally compile a cannibal dictionary?

I would point out that a culture that lacks a single succinct noun to describe a good-natured ceremony of drenching a newlywed couple with honey and letting a one-eyed camel drag them westward across ant hills is probably going to have fewer actual INSTANCES of, well, you know.

Happily, the language app Duolingo recently added courses on Navajo and Hawaiian. Language videos are constantly being added to the Wikitongues YouTube channel.

I just hope the volunteers working feverishly to preserve Languages That Might Be Useful Someday live long enough to see their efforts rewarded. Of course, this depends on their not getting crushed under a mountain of used pudding cups, busted analog TVs, college-days jeans and other things that Might Be Useful Someday.

And I hope our archives make a good impression when the aliens from Proxima Centauri return. (“What? They haven’t progressed beyond the languages from 5,000 years ago? Ha! Give them a cure for cancer? Uytrpkmnjnxw way, Jose!”)

DANNY TYREE welcomes email responses at and visits to his Facebook fan page.