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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Decline in the World's Languages

Air Date: Week of

Although there are thousands of languages spoken today, lingua-diversity is in steep decline. More than half the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. And more than a quarter are spoken by fewer than 1000 people. Guest host Laura Knoy talks with Peter Ladefoged (laud-eh-FOE-ged), a linguist at the University of California at Los Angeles who travels the world, studying and recording these rare languages.


KNOY: You're listening to the passing of linguistic history. These are 2 Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa speaking a language that is going extinct. It's just one of many languages around the world that will vanish in the not too distant future. There are thousands of languages spoken today, but lingua diversity is in steep decline. The 10 most common languages are spoken by 48% of the world's population. More than half the world's languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. And more than a quarter are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. Peter Ladefoged, a linguist at the University of California at Los Angeles, travels the world studying and recording these rare languages. He joins us from the studios of KUSE in Los Angeles. Welcome.

LADEFOGED: Very delighted to be here.

KNOY: Tell us about those voices we just heard.

LADEFOGED: Well, there were a couple of Bushmen. One was just telling the other, "Oh, terrible life. Hunting's terribly bad. We're all going to starve, it will be awful."

KNOY: What's the name of the language that they're speaking?

LADEFOGED: That language was called !Kung. It's a language of about 1,000 people in the Kalahari Desert.

KNOY: What's unique about that language?

LADEFOGED: (Laughs) What isn't? (Knoy laughs) Well, of course, nearly every language has got something unique to it. Even English. But that particular language has got 83 different ways of beginning a word with a different click sound. And over half the words in that language begin with a click.

KNOY: So the clicking is the most unique part of the language.

LADEFOGED: I think so. Although (laughs) you know, you might expect a language like that, which has got all those clicks, to sort of go easy on the vowels or something of that kind. But no, not at all. They've got a very curious set of vowels, so-called strident vowels as well. They've got words like !khaaaaow with a haaaa-type vowel going on at the same time. So they've got odd consonants, odd vowels, just an unusual language from the sound's point of view.

KNOY: Could you give us some examples of other unusual sounds found in other rare languages that you've studied?

LADEFOGED: Well, recently I was in the Amazonian rainforest, working with 2 or 3 different groups down there. But one of the groups, the Oro Win, had a sound which is made by a kind of T-sound followed by a trilling of the lips, so that the word for a small boy would be something like trrrrm. You get totally different sounds from any that occurs except in half a dozen other languages. There are other languages that trill the lips, but actually none of them have that t-sound before it.

KNOY: Do you have other words from that Amazonian language that you could share with us?

LADEFOGED: Yes indeed, because interestingly enough, they've used that sound when they have to coin a new word. Every language develops new words for new things. So the word for a helicopter is known as trrrm trrrm.

KNOY: Now, this has been your life work, preserving rare languages. Why do you think it's so valuable to do this?

LADEFOGED: Well, it's largely because I'm just interested from my point of view in the way the human mind works. I want to be able to say all these different sounds could be part of a language, and we've got to have a notion of what is a language and how the human mind creates a language by taking all these different sounds into account.

KNOY: Can you give us a sense of how many languages are in trouble?

LADEFOGED: Oh, yes. Mm. Roughly speaking, there are probably about 7,000 languages in the world. It depends on what you mean by a language, of course, but about 7,000. And of those 7,000, probably about half won't last for another century. Maybe that's an exaggeration, because it's very difficult to predict. But in many parts of the world, like the United States or Australia, the number of languages spoken by Native Americans has just gone down, or native Australians has just gone down at an amazing rate. So that we used to have several hundred American Indian languages in the United States. There are probably now about 20 that are really viable and able to last for some time.

KNOY: You have made some predictions about what language diversity will look like in the future.

LADEFOGED: Clearly, there will be fewer different languages spoken. And if you don't mind my saying so, it's all the fault of people in your profession, to a great extent. Everybody wants to listen to National Public Radio and other things, and so they all have to learn English to be able to do so.

KNOY: I understand that English is being used as the language of business and a language of journalism and international trade and conventions and so forth. But people can still speak their second language as well.

LADEFOGED: Yes, but what happens is that people, for reasons of wanting a better job or whatever it might be, learn English. When they are talking to their children they start thinking well, maybe I should talk to my children in English for a little bit. Same would apply to other language groups, where the language may be Swahili or something of that kind, the national language of Tanzania. It's the little languages that go because parents, wanting to get a greater advantage for themselves or for their children or both, stop using the language in the household. And as soon as the mothers don't speak to the children in that language, consistently and always in their home language, the language will slowly fade away as people get older and older.

KNOY: How do the people who speak these rare languages feel about that?

LADEFOGED: Well, that's a very difficult question. Because there are so many languages and so many different feelings. I know several groups of people who say things like, well, we must have our language because it's the way we keep in touch with our ancestors. It's a part of our whole tribal being to be able to speak this language and to be able to keep our history and to know our beliefs. Whereas other people don't view it that way. In other parts of the world, some people might well say, oh well, I suppose we've got to lose our language if it means that we can lead a more comfortable life, a better life, and my children can go to school. It's progress for some and perhaps retaining your language and retaining knowledge of your ancestors is something that other people want to do. And to lose it would be a backward progress.

KNOY: Peter Ladefoged is a linguist at the University of California at Los Angeles. He's currently at work on a new book, Vowels and Consonants. If you'd like to hear more unusual language, check out our Web site at www.livingonearth.org. Professor Ladefoged, thanks a lot for joining us.

LADEFOGED: Thank you indeed for asking me.



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