Two grammars, a few hours of recording and a handful of books, that’s all that remains of the oubykh, a language from the shores of the Black Sea. This talk disappeared in the early 1990s, with the death of its last speaker. Like the oubykh, a dozen languages are never spoken again and die every decade, at a rate that is accelerating according to linguists.
According to the Atlas of Endangered Languages, published in 2010 by Unesco, around 2,500 of the 7,000 languages identified were disappearing. Since then, this figure has undoubtedly increased further, languages extinguishing at the same time as their last transmitters for want of being transmitted to a new generation.
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“In 2005, when I went to Vanikoro, in the Solomon Islands, two of the three languages of the island were only spoken by six and twelve people respectively, remembers Alexandre François, director of research at the CNRS and specialists in Oceanian languages. In 2012, there was only one tanema speaker and four lovono speakers left. ” The third language of Vanikoro, Teanu, gradually imposed itself on all the inhabitants, nibbling on the other two.
“On the scale of a territory as small as this one, we observe the same phenomena as in much larger societies, with migrations and the replacement of one language by another, the majority”, continues the specialist. For we must not believe that tanema, lovono and teanu represent only three variations of the same dialect; they are indeed three different languages.
A dialect becomes a language in its own right when it is no longer understood by someone who does not speak it. For example, if Quebecers and Parisians understand each other it is because they speak French, the same language, and if French and English do not get along, it is because they are two different languages. In this case, the one who speaks Teanu does not understand the one who speaks Lovono.
Even rapid extinction in Gabon, where the linguist Jean-Marie Hombert has listed some twenty languages spoken by less than a hundred speakers, and which are therefore going to disappear. And this despite the government’s efforts to preserve a certain diversity in the face of the French who had imposed themselves with colonization. “Languages are abandoned either because an” official “language is dictated by the colonizer or the State, or because the language of the neighbor has greater social value”, explains this specialist in African languages.
French regional languages have suffered the same fate. “The XXe century marks a brutal break, with for example within the same family of the elders who were raised in Breton and the youngest in French, describes the linguist Jean-Paul Chauveau. The future was no longer local but national; we studied and worked beyond the borders of our region and therefore we learned the common language. “ A movement that continues with globalization and distances that are constantly shortened by communication and transport. Today, English is essential to dialogue outside the French borders, and young people often master the language of Shakespeare without flinching.
A little like the biodiversity in danger, some very specific and localized talks are therefore dying out. “And when a language disappears, it’s a way of seeing the world that disappears, because each one cuts out reality and expresses subtleties according to its needs”, worries Alexandre François, for whom each language is like a clock: all have the same fundamental role but not all tell the time in the same way.
Every time a speaker dies, the language becomes impoverished
Certain distinctions between similar plants or certain descriptions of very precise and delimited meteorological phenomena depend on a vocabulary which exists only among the peoples who meet them. Languages also carry the philosophy of their speakers. “In movima, a Bolivian language on which I work, the article in front of the name is different if the object or the person of which I speak is physically present next to me or if it is absent, explains Katharina Haude, linguist at the University of Cologne. It is a way of describing the world that does not exist in European languages, and each time one of the 200 or so speakers dies, the language becomes poorer. “
In Africa, the Bantu languages can use up to 25 prefixes to express “genders”: masculine, feminine, place, object, nature, but also the primacy, or even simply humanity. Ditto for the Australian aboriginal languages, of which more than a hundred have disappeared in a century and which, for some of them, also use the cardinal points (north, south, east and west), instead of a centered geography on the speaker (front, back, right and left).
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“The myths and knowledge related to a language can be translated and preserved even if a language dies out, but the common history, the construction of the world and the culture die with the speakers, sums up Katharina Haude. A dead language is at best a language without evolution, frozen as the world continues to move forward, and at worst a forgotten language, disappeared with the civilization that used it. “
To preserve a language, only transmission counts, whether written or oral. Linguists are formal: it is above all the vitality of the community and its culture that ensures linguistic vitality. Latin, although written, collapsed with the Roman Empire. Conversely, “In Gabon, only a few languages have a script developed by missionaries, but that does not prevent oral languages from transmitting their knowledge, recalls Jean-Marie Hombert. And with them, the stories of their peoples and their lands. “
Language, dialect and dialect. A dialect is a local variation of a language that remains understandable even by those who do not speak that dialect, and a dialect is a derogatory term for a dialect. For example, French and German are two languages, and Mosellan is a dialect of German.
Vehicle language and vernacular. A lingua franca is used by speakers of different languages to communicate, like a third and common language. A vernacular is the language of the community. English is both at the same time: means of communication between a Portuguese and a Chinese, it is also the language proper to the Anglo-Saxons.