You might be living through another mass extinction of species—brought on by us humans, who have been changing climate and fragmenting habitats at an increasing clip—but what you probably don’t know is that you might also be living through a mass extinction of human languages—brought on by the magic of the internet.
According to a paper titled “Digital Language Death,” just published in PLOS One, less than five percent of the 7,000 languages spoken today will ascend to the digital realm. Granted, languages have been dying as long as they’ve been spoken, but the Endangered Languages Project reports that “the pace at which languages are disappearing today has no precedent and is alarming.” András Kornai, author of the new paper, blames the internet for why we’re more likely to be speaking French than, say, Mandinka, in the future.
The means and speed of language death might be new, but the pattern is old. According to the UNESCO page on endangered languages, “a language disappears when its speakers disappear or when they shift to speaking another language—most often, a larger language used by a more powerful group. Languages are threatened by external forces such as military, economic, religious, cultural or educational subjugation, or by internal forces such as a community’s negative attitude towards its own language.” Both of these forces, Kornai argues, are exacerbated by the internet.
The signs of imminent death for a language are a loss of function, where other languages take over entire functional areas such as commerce; a loss of prestige, as the young lose interest in learning and using the language; and finally a loss of competence, wherein a generation can maybe understand their elders, but don’t really speak the language themselves.
The great flat, globalized world of the internet operates pretty much as a monoculture, Kornai says. Only about 250 languages can be called well-established online, and another 140 are borderline. Of the 7,000 languages still alive, perhaps 2,500 will survive, in the classical sense, for another century, and many fewer will make it on to the internet.
As a test of vitality, Kornai began where all research begins: Wikipedia. “Experience shows that Wikipedia is always among the very first active digital language communities, and can be safely used as an early indicator of some language actually crossing the digital divide,” Kornai writes. “Children, as soon as they start using computers for anything beyond gaming, become aware of Wikipedia, which offers a highly supportive environment of like-minded users, and lets everyone pursue a goal, summarizing human knowledge, that many find not just attractive, but in fact instrumental for establishing their language and culture in the digital realm. To summarize a key result of this study in advance: No wikipedia, no ascent.”
There are 533 proposals for Wikipedia languages in incubator stage, more than twice the number of actual Wikipedias, but Kornai estimates no more than a third of them will ever get the required minimum of at least five active users and get enough pages to make it onto Wikipedia proper.
It’s a self-perpetuating problem that means if you want to do business online, it’s more than likely going to be in English, the FIGS languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish), the CJK languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), and “the main languages of former colonial empires” (Dutch, Russian, Portuguese). That’s the loss of function happening for the languages with fewer speakers or less representation online. The adage “If it’s not on the web, it does not exist,” neatly encapsulates the loss of prestige. And as a generation of digital natives comes up, their online tongue is likely not to be their mother tongue—a loss of competence.
As an interesting aside, Arabic, while both digitally vital and the fifth most-spoken language in the world, was not considered at thriving status yet, as it failed to meet one of the study’s criteria—Apple OS didn’t support it at the time Kornai was doing the study.
But aside from the 250 digital survivors, all others are drifting towards something Kornai calls “digital heritage status,” where material is available for research and documentation purposes, but the language is not used by native speakers online.
Ross Perlin, writing at Al Jazeera America, explained that much of the internet’s linguistic exclusion comes back to the fact that a lot of it is written. “The language database Ethnologue estimates that 3,535 of the world’s 7,105 living languages have no writing system whatsoever,” he said. And with 96 percent of the world’s languages spoken by just 4 percent, many voices get drowned out, as there are fewer than 10,000 people who speak that language.
That said, Kornai makes a compelling case for diversity and what we miss when a language disappears:
Each language reflects a unique world-view and culture complex, mirroring the manner in which a speech community has resolved its problems in dealing with the world, and has formulated its thinking, its system of philosophy and understanding of the world around it. In this, each language is the means of expression of the intangible cultural heritage of people, and it remains a reflection of this culture for some time even after the culture which underlies it decays and crumbles, often under the impact of an intrusive, powerful, usually metropolitan, different culture.
“Intrusive, powerful, usually metropolitan”—If he’d added in “vulgar” he’d have described the internet perfectly. Perlin is optimistic that increasing face-to-face resources will make a place for non-written languages, but Kornai isn’t so sure. Actually, Kornai’s fairly sure that this is the end of most of these languages. “Evidently, what we are witnessing is not just a massive die-off of the world’s languages, it is the final act of the Neolithic Revolution, with the urban agriculturalists moving on to a different, digital plane of existence, leaving the hunter-gatherers and nomad pastoralists behind,” he wrote.
Well, just as there are still hunter gatherers somewhere in the world today, pockets of these languages will remain where they always have: in the meat space. The internet might not be making room for all of the world’s languages to have their own Wikipedia, but many will at least get their own Wikipedia page. Even when they’re no longer spoken, the internet will no doubt maintain resources for preserving languages as subjects of study, so at the very least the wisdom in them won’t be lost forever when the last speaker signs off.