Digital Language Death

languageYou could have knocked me over with a weak cliché:  do you know that every two weeks or so the world experiences the demise of yet another active language. How many hundreds of years did people speak and write that fading language and now it is only available in books. If people stop using their traditional language, can we still call it a language? I guess so: look at Nahuatl and, of course, Latin which isn’t even used in the high church any more.

But what is more obviously the death-knell for many lesser language is the Internet. If you primarily speak and write a lesser known or locally limited language, stop and consider: How do you spell LOLAROTF in your language? In your language, what is the word for “glitch”? Is there a Wiki-[fill-in-your-language] online to expand the gray cells in your area of the world? It is estimated that only five percent of the world’s languages have a significant presence online and the suggestion is then that only five percent of the world’s language will survive as more and more of everyday life becomes attached to the internet.

When you have to go to a digital feed site to find the book you want to read, will they have it in your language? Today you might find the ink and paper version of your book but tomorrow, will there even be ink and paper?

On the other hand, it is reasonable to question how important maintaining thousands of unique or varietal languages might actually be? Have you ever paused to consider how many people speak and read the English language and how few people speak and read Bulgarian? Not that there’s anything wrong with Bulgarian, but don’t you sometimes want to clean up some of the complexity of the world and consolidate a few languages?

Then, why do we even have the confusion resulting from sovereign countries with all that messy patriotism and such?

While technically a language only “dies” when its last speaker does, this is usually preceded by a number of factors including falling out of use in commerce or politics, losing prestige in a particular population, or the loss of competence in the language among young people. Add to this a language’s failure to be used online and you can already hear the bell tolling.

(Read an article on this subject at PlosOne.)


One thing the internet also does is to degrade a language. We can blame cell phones and texting for this as much as the internet (load up the bird-shot,  I hear a tweet). I prefer to write out words and to avoid cutesy emoticons at all costs, but if you look around the net, there are new language elements being introduced in just about any language … and they are all detrimental to the language. For those of you who read and speak English, you should know that the trend is to shorten all languages used on the internet. For instance, if you read Spanish you’ll probably get used to the new spelling of ¿Que? which I have seen as both “Q” and “K” (I guess it’s a personal choice). One wonders how the planet’s languages will look in another forty years.

One thought on “Digital Language Death

  1. I recently visited my country of origin, after a good few years of absence. I was shocked at the way (mostly) English expressions (and not always simpler or easier expressions or in any way following the linguistics principle of “economy of language”) are being used in every day situations to replace perfectly good, useful and succinct ones in the native language, mostly by/in the media and the so-called “celebrity class”. (And I won’t even go into the small fact of members of the political elite thinking nothing of speaking half-English to/in the media). I have also noticed that, for instance in signs (e.g. all over airports and coach and train stations) the English used is bad standard and very often ends up reading quite rude, as for instance in “This phone is been made available to you. Use it!” One of the end results is, again, the distancing of the “cultured” *** elites from the mass of the population, to whom this garbled lingo becomes if not impenetrable, then grossly misleading. My partner, native English speaker, was himself commenting how much the language has gone ‘down’, and even the level of proficiency in English seems to have declined quite sharply. He said: “hey, it’s as if they’re just throwing it all on through Google translator, and never mind what they get back”. Often, seemingly, word by word. We laughed, as we remembered something else. Recently, in Wales, some road signs were made and put up: they read the out-of-office message of the duty translator, instead of the traffic instruction they were supposed to carry. Looking at signs and instructions, we felt a bit like that: the translator has left the office, and someone who couldn’t spell garbled it all up.
    [*** Some old sort I once read many, many years ago said that no person can consider themselves truly cultured unless they had as perfect a knowledge of their own language as possible – I wonder.]

    You are of course right on the mouche: the ‘engine’ of language death or survival (and for the creation or adoption of one single language as a global language) is, first and foremost, economic and political power. This said, it is a fact that one of the end results of the emergence of some sort of global ‘lingua franca’ will be the demise of localised languages (which all are), and therefore of any culturally and linguistically anchored particularities. I also wonder if what we shall gain will ever be worth what we are already losing. What do you think? ::smiling somewhat sadly, and not the least because I still love paper books::


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