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Exploring Extinct Languages and Their Cultural Significance

Exploring Extinct Languages and Their Cultural Significance

Languages around the world are constantly in flux, but many are endangered or extinct. A dead language is one that can still be learned and written but is generally not spoken. Extinct language, conversely, is completely nonfunctional and is solely remembered by their names. UNESCO reports that 40% of all languages are in jeopardy, with only half projected to endure by the close of the 21st century. The popularity and utilization of a language are in constant flux, influenced by factors such as societal preferences, cultural transformations, and shifts in lifestyle. Considering that the disappearance of a language signifies the loss of cultural heritage and knowledge, the preservation and support of languages become imperative. In this piece, we will briefly explore a roster of deceased and extinct languages, underscoring the significance of translation services in upholding the vitality of a language.

What is an Extinct Language?

Extinct languages are those that have ceased to exist due to the absence of speakers or users. Typically, this occurs with languages spoken in small local communities that have faded away over time, but it is also applicable to numerous ancient languages. Extinct languages are those that are not bothered to be studied and are usually represented by only a few fragments. Most of the remaining fragments are lost forever.

The extinction of these languages also results in the loss of cultural heritage and knowledge. Today, globalization and the dominance of English are contributing to the extinction of languages. Global trade and communication force people to specialize in their mother tongue, which reduces the importance of minority languages.

What is a Dead Language?

An extinct language is worse than a dead language. In linguistics, a dead language is generally characterized as one that, while not spoken by native speakers, is still utilized by some individuals. Latin stands out as perhaps the most renowned dead language; although absent from everyday conversations, it remains a subject of academic study, offering valuable insights into actively spoken languages like Romance languages. Dead languages might persist in contexts but no longer serve as the primary means of communication within a community.

While scholars attempt to draw a clear distinction between extinct and dead languages, the differentiation remains somewhat unclear because both types of languages have lost native speakers and undergone similar processes.

How Do Languages Die?

How Do Languages Die 1

There are numerous factors contributing to the death of languages. Evolution, which leads to continuous changes in the language alongside the culture and lifestyle of the speaking community, is one such factor. Transformation, observed in some languages like Ancient Greek, can result in significant changes, and certain languages, such as Latin, may evolve into another language group. Genocide can also lead to the demise of languages, as the extermination of ethnic groups may result in the loss of their languages.

The death of languages typically occurs when people cease to use them. Factors such as migration, being under pressure, or coercion can force individuals to stop speaking their native languages. This may lead immigrants to abandon their mother tongues and even refrain from teaching them to their children. In some cases, people may be compelled not to speak their own languages.

Can Languages Be Resuscitated?

While some linguists are determined to bring a dead language back to life, it is a formidable task. The Endangered Languages Project may be an impressive starting point in this field, but it is a deep topic for language enthusiasts. A hopeful picture can be painted for endangered languages because the remaining native speakers can stimulate change for language preservation.

Technology, with its ability to digitally preserve audio recordings and other resources, can help preserve the language in a frozen form, which can be an important resource for future generations.

Top 6 Dead Languages List

Numerous extinct languages can be enlisted among the list of dead languages. Here are six of them:

1. Latin

Although Latin is a dead language, its history and influence are still alive. This language has a rich history starting with the Roman Empire. In modern society, its influence continues in many areas from medical terms to daily conversations.

While Latin is categorized as a dead language, it continues to be part of school curricula and serves as an official language in certain nations.

2. Sanskrit

Sanskrit, renowned as the sacred language of Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, served as the medium for composing numerous ancient scriptures in these religions. While Sanskrit is no longer spoken as a native language today, it persists in religious ceremonies in India.

Despite being considered a dormant language, Sanskrit holds official status in India and continues to captivate students, particularly for its profound philosophical works.

3. Coptic

Coptic is recognized as one of Egypt’s languages and is acknowledged as the primary language of Christianity. Employing the Greek alphabet, this language is a fusion of Hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Hieratic scripts.

Coptic, standing out as the first Christian language, represents the final stage of the Ancient Egyptian language, used before being replaced by Arabic.

4. Biblical Hebrew

Among extinct languages, Biblical Hebrew is a language distinct from modern Hebrew, still alive but not an official language. It played a significant role in Israel’s history and was taught in state schools. While Modern Hebrew boasts a broad vocabulary, Biblical Hebrew is more limited.

After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the use of Biblical Hebrew declined, and hopes of revival faded after the Holocaust.

5. Ancient Greek

Ancient Greek, used by great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Homer, played a fundamental role in Western civilization. The majority of the modern scientific English vocabulary has roots in Ancient Greek.

Although currently considered a dead language, it has, in fact, transformed into Modern Greek.

6. Akkadian

Akkadian, generally spoken in the Mesopotamian region, is currently a dead language listed among extinct languages. Named after the central city of Mesopotamia, Akkad, it was not only spoken by the Mesopotamian people but also utilized by the Babylonian and Chaldean communities.

Akkadian is the first confirmed language among the Semitic languages. However, due to its inability to evolve over time, Akkadian has become extinct.

Top 5 Extinct Languages

Top 5 Extinct Languages

It is not possible to cover every extinct language in this article, so we will only discuss five extinct languages:

1. Gallic

Gallic was spoken in parts of present-day France, Switzerland, the Upper Rhine region, and northern Italy. Originally employing Greek characters, this Celtic language transitioned to the Latin alphabet under the influence of the Romans. By the third century AD, however, traces of the language had disappeared and were probably replaced by Latin.

2. Burgundian

The Burgundian language emerged as a result of the Burgundians settling in Germany starting from the 1st century AD. However, the language faced its demise in the 5th century when the Roman ruler Flavius orchestrated the massacre of the Burgundian dynasty and numerous Burgundians. The Burgundian language has left behind only a limited number of words and inscriptions that have been preserved.

3. Slovincian

Slovincian was a West Slavic language spoken along the Baltic coast and northeast of the Elbe River in Pomerania, and it became extinct in the 20th century. Slovincian, an unwritten language, was phonetically recorded and documented before its extinction.

Pomeranian, recognized as a language within the West Slavic language subgroup, is considered a combination influenced by Slovincian, Kashubian, and Low German in the Western Pomeranian dialect.

4. Eyak

Eyak is a North American Na-Dené language spoken in the southern part of Alaska, meaning “People’s words.” The influence of English, the growth of the Tlingit population, and the assimilation of Eyak speakers have led to the extinction of the language.

The last known Eyak speaker passed away in 2008.

5. Sumerian

Sumerian, the oldest written language globally, emerged in Mesopotamia around the 3rd century BCE. While it ceased to be spoken by 1700 BCE, it endured as a scholarly language for 1,600 years. Limited to Southern Mesopotamia, Sumerian is notable for being the initial language recorded in cuneiform script.

Bekir Diri
Bekir Diri

Bekir Diri, founder of Atlas Localization, studied at Trakya University, Department of Translation and Interpretation. He gained industry experience with his MA in Translation Studies in Istanbul 29 Mayis University, with his thesis titled “Turkish Issues in Game, Mobile Application and Web Localization”, while also improving himself in the field. He also lectures about Translation Technologies, Project Management and Localization in Istanbul 29 Mayis University.

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