Duizenden unieke taalgemeenschappen sterven uit. Met meer dan zesduizend talen in de wereld, zijn we ons nauwelijks bewust van wat we eigenlijk kwijt raken aan literatuur, filosofieën en denkwijzen.
De wereld wordt hoe langer hoe meer gedomineerd door een beperkt aantal grote taal ‘mono-culturen’. Dit zijn bijvoorbeeld Mandarijn Chinees, Hindi, Arabisch, Indonesisch, Urdu, Spaans, Portugees, Engels, Swahili, Russisch, Cantonees, Japans en Bengali. Stuk voor stuk mooie en fascinerende talen. Maar dat zijn de 5.000 andere talen ook.
‘Staatloze’ talen, oftewel talen die helemaal niet tot een staat behoren, zijn de moedertalen van sommige van de meest intrigerende en onbekende culturen in de wereld. Zoals de Lappen in de poolcirkel, de Sardijnstaligen op Sardinië, Ainu in Japan, Cherokee in de VS, Gaelic Schots in Groot Brittannië, Zoeloe in Zuid-Afrika. Er zijn in de wereld enkele honderden erkende soevereine staten en territoria, dit houdt in dat meer dan 5.000 talen worden gesproken door mensen die linguistisch staatloos zijn.
Wat kan ik doen?
Je hoeft zelf geen bedreigde taalsoort te leren spreken – net zo min als je in het regenwoud hoeft te gaan wonen om de vernietiging ervan tegen te gaan.
Een goed begin is om je omgeving attent te maken op websites zoals deze.
Bekendheid bij een breed publiek maakt het voor taalkundigen makkelijker om middelen en mensen te verzamelen om deze talen te leren, zolang er nog tijd is.
Er zijn mensen die van talen houden en bereid zijn om deze te leren, zodat de rest van ons dit niet hoeft te doen. Maar ze hebben wel steun nodig, net als zoölogen, botanica, en historici.
to contact the Dutch translator, e-mail via firstname.lastname@example.org
Fewer languages still sounds good to me
Depends what you think languages are for. They're not just a tool for business. We never said you should learn three or four thousand rare languages - or even one. And which ones we make children learn in school, or whether we should force children to learn languages at all, is another question.
A century ago - before we understood ecology, and when we cared less about wilderness, most educated people would have laughed at the idea of worrying about plants or animals going extinct. Now we understand how important species diversity is for our own futures, we are more humble, and more worried.
In the same way, linguistic triumphalism by English-speakers who hated studying foreign grammar at school is dangerously ignorant as well as arrogant. Few of us know what we are losing, week by week. How many people realise these languages have scientific value?
You can think of these languages across the planet as beautiful cathedrals or precious archeological sites we are watching being destroyed. That should be motive enough.
But these five thousand languages also hold clues to the structure of the human mind. Subtle differences and similarities between languages are helping archeologists and anthropologists to understand what happened in the hundreds of centuries of human history before written history. And that is one of our best chances of understanding how human brains developed over the thousands of centuries leading up to that.
Study of the mind and study of language go hand in hand these days. The world's most marginal languages are actually precious jigsaw pieces from an overall picture of who we are and how our species thinks and evolves. Every tiny language adds another brightly-coloured clue to this academic detective story.
Yet researchers have hardly started sifting through this tantalising evidence, and language extinction is washing it away right in front of us.
And worst of all, most people have no idea that there is this fantastic profusion of cultures across our world, let alone that they are in danger of extinction. Even just more people learning that there are still five thousand living languages in the world today (most of us would answer five hundred or fifty) is already a huge help.
We English-speakers hardly notice English - it's like air for us. But every other language is also an atmosphere for an entire cultural world, and each of these worlds has people whose home it is. Each language encapsulates a unique way of talking and thinking about life. Just try some time in a foreign prison, being forced to cope in another language, and you'll realise how much your own language is your identity. That's true for everyone.
Minority languages are a human-rights issue?
One of the most basic.
Dozens of millions of people worldwide suffer persecution from national governments for speaking their mother tongue - in their own motherland.
Many 'ethnic' feuds puzzling to outsiders had as their basis an attempt to destroy a linguistic community. Would the Northern Ireland dispute be quite so bitter if we English had not so nearly stamped out the Irish Gaelic language, for example? Almost nowhere in the world does a language community as small as the few thousand Rheto-Romanic speakers - the fourth official language of Switzerland - get the protection of a national government. Next time you see some Swiss Francs, check both sides of the banknote.
But outside exceptional countries like Switzerland or the Netherlands, speakers of non-official languages have a much less protected experience.
Speakers of minority languages are often seen as a threat by both the governments and the other residents of the countries where they were born, grew up, and try to live ordinary lives.
They experience discrimination in the job and education markets of their homelands, often having no choice but to pursue education in the major language of the host state - a deliberate government policy usually aimed at gradually absorbing them into the majority culture of that country.
Most governments are privately gleeful each time another small separate culture within their borders is snuffed out by a dwindling population or a deliberately centralising education system.
The United Nations is no help. It is an association of a couple of hundred sovereign states based on exclusive control of territory, almost all of them anxious to smother any distinct group or tradition that in any way might blur or smudge the hard-won borders around those pieces of territory.
The usual approach by sovereign states is to deny their linguistic minorities even exist.
Mark Griffith, site administrator / email@example.com
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*2 image from
'Bäume', with thanks to
Bruno P. Kramer,
and Franckh-Kosmos Verlag