“By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear.” National Geographic
Q: What do we lose when the world loses a language?
A: If one takes the view that a language is merely an instrument of communication, then the answer is likely to be “not much.” After all, replacing a language that has only a few speakers with e.g. English, Spanish or Tok Pisin (a creole language widely used in New Guinea), gives people a much wider range of people with whom they can communicate. So no great loss, it would appear.
But this rather utilitarian view is shortsighted, because a language is much more than a system of communication: it contains an entire conceptual universe locked within it. No two languages are alike in terms of all of the conceptual categories they contain. Even such familiar and closely related languages as English and German differ strikingly in many conceptual domains; the two languages have borrowed many words and associated concepts from each other in part to expand the range of concepts in each. When one investigates the indigenous languages of the Americas or Papua-New Guinea, for example, the concepts to be found there are quite different from those found in familiar languages, both in terms of the organization of similar domains (e.g. color terms which do not correspond to those of European languages) and in terms of altogether novel concepts from a European perspective. For example, Lakota, a Siouan language of North America, has a word shunka which is normally translated as ‘dog’ but in fact means something more general; it occurs in expressions like shunka-wakhan ‘horse’ (literally, ‘holy’ or ‘wondrous “dog”’), an archaic expression for a domesticated cat igmu-shunka (literally ‘cat-“dog”’, igmu originally referring to wild cats only), and a term for monkey, shunka-wichasha (literally ‘“dog”-man’). Loss of a language means loss of a conceptual system, a product of the human mind, which can never be recovered.
—Dr. Robert Van Valin is Professor of General Linguistics at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany and the University at Buffalo. He has done research on two American Indian languages, Lakhota (Siouan) and Yatee Zapotec (Oto-Manguean), and is the author of An Introduction to Syntax.