The Legacy Of Extinct Languages

When we think of language today, much of the focus is on learning more than one. Take English for example: a language used widely around the word. What might not know, however, is that English, a relatively new language, is actually comprised of terminology, dialect and speech from thousands of other cultures, some of which are now extinct—such as Latin. Among the 196 countries around the globe, there are more than 6,700 languages—up to half of which are expected to fizzle out by the end of the 21st century. In fact, speech researchers estimate that since the European colonization of North America, more than 115 languages have become extinct, 20 of which disappearing within the 20th century. Remnants of some of the most relevant languages of their time, like Middle English, can still be seen today in ancient artifacts such as original prints of Chaucer's Robin Hood between 1200 and 1450 A.D. Yet when it comes to the expiration date for languages, not all life cycles are the same. "Extinct" languages die because there are no longer any native or secondary speakers keeping the vernacular alive, whereas a "dead" language may no longer be used in social or cultural contexts, but used exclusively for scientific and academic purposes.

So how to languages start, and what makes them burn out? Could prominent languages like English, French, German and Spanish as we know it ever expire? Learn more about the amazing history and complicated context of how older languages retire—and make comebacks.

Key Facts In This Video

  1. The Silbo language, which consists entirely of whistles, is native to the island La Gomera in the Spanish Canary Islands. 00:12

  2. The topography of La Gomera allows its inhabitants to communicate with the whistling Silbo language across distances of up to 7 kilometers. 01:46

  3. The whistling language of Silbo is rarely heard on its native island, but certain people continue to use and teach it. 03:22

Written by Curiosity Staff September 25, 2014

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