Linguist David Crystal is a leading authority on language, and author of many books, including Language Death, about the rapid endangerment and death of many minority languages across the world. There are some 6,000 languages in the world. And, of these, about half are going to die out in the course of the next century. Born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, in 1941, Crystal asks in his book the question “Why is language death so important?“, reviews the reason for the current crisis and investigates what is being done to reduce its impact. He is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor.
Can we save the 3.000 languages that are going to die out in the course of the next century? How much would it cost?
Some of them can, if the will is there — from the speakers themselves, and from their local and national governments. Costs are very unpredictable, but a great deal can be done by way of documentation and revitalization with a relatively small amount of money. We are talking a few millions per language, not billions. A tiny percentage of annual oil revenues would be more than enough.
Is it worth keeping alive languages that are sometimes only spoken by a handful of people? Why?
Of course. The world is a mosaic of visions, each expressed through an individual language. The loss of a language is an intellectual loss to humanity. Even if the language can not be revitalised among the community, at least it can be fully documented, so that we know how its speakers saw the world. When a language dies that has never been documented, it is as if it has never been.
Is English the last lingua franca?
Probably. With automatic translation and interpretation gradually improving, there will be no need of lingua francas in an electronic world. We are thinking a long way ahead, of course, but Douglas Adams’ ‘Babel fish’ is looking increasingly plausible.
How do you imagine the map of the world’s languages in 22nd century?
I never predict the future, when it comes to language. For all I know, we may all be speaking Martian by then! And to predict the future of language is really to predict the future of the power relations among countries — political, economic, religious…. Your guess is as good as mine. But one thing is clear: the map will be much less dense, with only some 3000 languages to represent, instead of the 6000 or so currently present.
You say that we need an ‘ecological’ movement to prevent the extinction of languages. Do you think people have to donate money to save languages as they do to save whales or tigers?
Some sort of philanthropy seems essential, but we need some big players. The scale of the problem is beyond the capabilities of the man in the street. If there were a Nobel Prize for languages, or similar high-profile events (similar to the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion), a new climate would emerge which could stimulate large-scale participation.
Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)