What we lose when we lose a language

The Economist has an interesting question-and-answer piece with K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College who has made a career documenting many of the world’s endangered languages.

By some estimates, according to The Economist, half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear in the next century. 

A film about Harrison and fellow linguist Greg Anderson, “The Linguists,” was nominated for an Emmy award, and recently Harrison wrote a book with National Geographic titled “The Last Speakers.”

Among questions posed by the magazine:

“What do we lose when we lose a language?” To which Harrison replied:

The human knowledge base is eroding as we lose languages, exacerbated by the fact that most of them have never been written down or recorded. In ‘When Languages Die’ (2007) I wrote ‘When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday.’ Only some cultures erect grand built monuments by which we can remember their achievements. But all cultures encode their genius in their languages, stories, and lexicons.

Each language is a unique expression of human creativity. We find millennia of careful observation of the natural world and human behaviour, knowledge of flora and fauna (often not yet known or identified by scientists), and some of the secrets of how to live sustainably in challenging environments like the Arctic or the Andean Altiplano.

We would be outraged if Notre Dame Cathedral or the Great Pyramid of Giza were demolished to make way for modern buildings. We should be similarly appalled when languages—monuments to human genius far more ancient and complex than anything we have built with our hands—erode.


2 thoughts on “What we lose when we lose a language

  1. There’s loss of language when no one speaks it any more, and there’s loss of language when people forget to actually speak with each other. The United States has followed the latter path. People simply soundbite and Tweet past each other.

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