An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers, or that is no longer in current use. Extinct languages are sometimes contrasted with dead languages, which are still known and used in special contexts in written form, but not as ordinary spoken languages for everyday communication. However, language extinction and language death are often equated.
Normally the transition from a spoken to an extinct language occurs when a language undergoes language death while being directly replaced by a different one. For example, Native American languages were replaced by English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, or Dutch as a result of colonization.
By contrast to an extinct language which no longer has any speakers, a dead language may remain in use for scientific, legal, or ecclesiastical functions. Old Church Slavonic, Avestan, Coptic, Biblical Hebrew, Ge'ez, Sanskrit and Latin are among the many dead languages used as sacred languages.
Sometimes a language that has changed so much that linguists describe it as a different language (or different stage) is called "extinct", as in the case of Old English, a forerunner of Modern English. But in such cases, the language never ceased to be used by speakers, and as linguist's subdivisions in the process of language change are fairly arbitrary, such forerunner languages are not properly speaking extinct.
A language that currently has living native speakers is called a modern language. Ethnologue records 7,358 living languages known.
Hebrew is an example of a nearly extinct spoken language (by the first definition above) that became a lingua franca and a liturgical language that has been revived to become a living spoken language. There are other attempts at language revival. In general, the success of these attempts has been subject to debate, as it is not clear they will ever become the common native language of a community of speakers.
It is believed that 90% of the circa 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world will have become extinct by 2050, as the world's language system has reached a crisis and is dramatically restructuring.
Globalization, development, and language extinction
As economic and cultural globalization and development continue to push forward, growing numbers of languages will become endangered and eventually, extinct. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant languages of world commerce: English, Chinese, and Spanish.
In their study of contact-induced language change, American linguists Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman state that in situations of cultural pressure (where populations must speak a dominant language), three linguistic outcomes may occur: first - and most commonly - a subordinate population may shift abruptly to the dominant language, leaving the native language to a sudden linguistic death. Second, the more gradual process of language death may occur over several generations. The third and most rare outcome is for the pressured group to maintain as much of its native language as possible, while borrowing elements of the dominant language's grammar (replacing all, or portions of, the grammar of the original language).
Institutions such as the education system, as well as (often global) forms of media such as the Internet, television, and print media play a significant role in the process of language loss. For example, immigrants from one country come to another, their kids go to school in the country, and the schools may teach them in the official language of the country rather than their native language.
Cultural anthropologist Wade Davis points to the dangers of "modernization" (often cited as reason for economic development) and globalization as threats to indigenous cultures and languages throughout the world. He argues that just as the biosphere is being eroded by these forces, so too is the "ethnosphere" - the cultural web of life.
Implications of language extinction
Estimates of future language loss range from half of more than 6000 currently spoken languages being lost in the next 200 years, to 90% by the year 2050. Wade Davis states that languages - as not simply bodies of vocabulary or sets of grammatical rules, but "old growth forests of the mind" - for the many and unique cultures of the world reflect different ways of being, thinking, and knowing.
As Davis puts it, language extinction effectively reduces the "entire range of the human imagination... to a more narrow modality of thought", and thus privileges the ways of knowing in dominant (and overwhelmingly European) languages such as English. Foucauldian ideas of power and knowledge, as both inseparable and symbiotic, are implicated in the universalizing of European knowledge as truth, and the rendering of other forms as less valid or false: mere superstition, folklore, or mythology. In the case of language extinction, those "voices" which are deemed to be inferior or secondary by colonizing, globalizing, or developing forces are literally silenced.
Davis also illustrates that languages are lost not because cultures are destined to fade away (as proponents of environmental or cultural determinism or Social Darwinism may contend), but rather that they are "driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to"; he further remonstrates that "genocide, the physical extinction of a people is universally condemned, but ethnocide, the destruction of peoples' way of life is not only not condemned, it's universally - in many quarters - celebrated as part of a development strategy."
Recently extinct languages
With last known speaker and/or date of death.
- Adai: (late 19th century)
- Aka-Bo: Boa Sr (2010)
- Akkala Sami: Marja Sergina (2003)
- entire Alsean family
- Alsea: John Albert (1942)
- Yaquina: (1884)
- Apalachee: (early 18th century)
- Arwi: (early 19th Century)
- Aruá: (1877)
- Atakapa: (early 20th century)
- Atsugewi: (1988)
- Beothuk: Shanawdithit (a.k.a. "Nancy April") (1829)
- entire Catawban family
- Catawba: (before 1960)
- Cayuse: (ca. 1930's)
- Chemakum: (ca. 1940's)
- Chicomuceltec: (late 20th century)
- Chimariko: (ca. 1930's)
- Chitimacha: Benjamin Paul (1934) & Delphine Ducloux (1940)
- entire Chumashan family: Barbareño language was last to become extinct.
- Barbareño: Mary Yee (1965)
- Island Chumash
- Coahuilteco: (18th century)
- Cochimí (a Yuman language): (early 19th century)
- entire Comecrudan family
- Comecrudo: recorded from children (Andrade, Emiterio, Joaquin, & others) of last speakers in (1886)
- Garza: last recorded in (1828)
- Mamulique: last recorded in (1828)
- entire Coosan family
- Hanis: Martha Johnson (1972)
- Miluk: Annie Miner Peterson (1939)
- all Costanoan languages (which make up a subfamily of the Utian language family): (ca. 1940's)
- Northern Costanoan
- Rumsen: last recorded speaker died in (1939) in Monterey, California
- Cotoname: last recorded from Santos Cavázos and Emiterio in (1886)
- Crimean Gothic: language vanished by the (1800's)
- Cuman: (early 17th century)
- Dalmatian: Tuone Udaina, (June 10, 1898)
- Esselen: report of a few speakers left in 1833, extinct before the end of the 19th century
- Eyak (a Na-Dené language): Marie Smith Jones, January 21, 2008
- Gabrielino (an Uto-Aztecan language): elderly speakers last recorded in 1933
- Gafat (a South Ethiopian Semitic language): four speakers found in 1947 after much effort, no subsequent record
- Galice-Applegate (an Athabaskan language)
- Galice dialect: Hoxie Simmons (1963)
- Greenlandic Norse: (by the late 15th century (16th century at the latest))
- Modern Gutnish: (by the 18th century)
- Jassic: (17th century)
- Juaneño (an Uto-Aztecan language): last recorded in (1934)
- Kakadu (Gagadju): Big Bill Neidjie (July 2002)
- entire Kalapuyan family
- Central Kalapuya
- Ahantchuyuk, Luckimute, Mary's River, and Lower McKenzie River dialects: last speakers were about 6 persons who were all over 60 in (1937)
- Santiam dialect: (ca. 1950's)
- Northern Kalapuya
- Tualatin dialect: Louis Kenoyer (1937)
- Yamhill dialect: Louisa Selky (1915)
- Yonkalla: last recorded in 1937 from Laura Blackery Albertson who only partly remembered it
- Kamassian: last native speaker, Klavdiya Plotnikova died in (1989)
- Karankawa: (1858)
- Kathlamet (a Chinookan language): (ca. 1930's)
- Kitanemuk (an Uto-Aztecan language): Marcelino Rivera, Isabella Gonzales, Refugia Duran last recorded (1937)
- Kitsai (a Caddoan language): Kai Kai (ca. 1940)
- Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie (an Athabaskan language): children of the last speakers remembered a few words, recorded in (1935 & 1942)
- Clatskanie dialect: father of Willie Andrew (ca. 1870)
- Kwalhioqua dialect: mother of Lizzie Johnson (1910)
- Mahican: last spoken in Wisconsin (ca. 1930's)
- Manx: Ned Maddrell (December 1974) (but is being revived as a second language)
- Mattole-Bear River (an Athabaskan language)
- Bear River dialect: material from last elderly speaker recorded (ca. 1929)
- Mattole dialect: material recorded (ca. 1930)
- Mbabaram: Albert Bennett (1972)
- Mesmes: (one of the West Gurage languages), material from last elderly speaker (who had no spoken it for 30 years) collected ca. 2000
- Miami-Illinois: (1989)
- Mochica: (ca. 1950's)
- Mohegan: Fidelia Fielding (1908)
- Molala: Fred Yelkes (1958)
- Munichi: Victoria Huancho Icahuate (late 1990's)
- Natchez: Watt Sam & Nancy Raven (early 1930's)
- Negerhollands: Alice Stevenson (1987)
- Nooksack: Sindick Jimmy (1977)
- Northern Pomo: (1994)
- Nottoway (an Iroquoian language): last recorded (before 1836)
- Pentlatch (a Salishan language): Joe Nimnim (1940)
- Pánobo (a Pano–Tacanan language): (1991)
- Pochutec (Uto-Aztecan: last documented 1917 by Franz Boas
- Polabian (a Slavic language): (late 18th century)
- Sadlermiut: last speaker died of disease in (1902)
- Salinan: (ca. 1960)
- entire Shastan family
- New River Shasta
- Shasta: 3 elderly speakers in 1980, extinct by (1990)
- Sirenik: last speaker died of old age in (1997)
- Siuslaw: (ca. 1970's)
- Slovincian (a Slavic language): (20th century)
- Sowa (a language of Vanuatu): last fluent speaker died in (2000)
- Susquehannock: all last speakers murdered in (1763)
- Takelma: Molly Orton (or Molly Orcutt) & Willie Simmons (both not fully fluent) last recorded in (1934)
- Tasmanian: (late 19th century)
- Tataviam (an Uto-Aztecan language): Juan José Fustero who remembered only a few words of his grandparents' language recorded (1913)
- Teteté (a Tucanoan language)
- Tillamook (a Salishan language): (1970)
- Tonkawa: 6 elderly people in (1931)
- Tsetsaut (an Athabaskan language): last fluent speaker was elderly man recorded in (1894)
- Tunica: Sesostrie Youchigant (ca. mid 20th century)
- Ubykh: Tevfik Esenç (October 1992)
- Most dialects of Upper Chinook (a Chinookan language) are extinct, except for the Wasco-Wishram dialect. The Clackamas dialect became extinct in the (1930's), other dialects have little documentation. (The Wasco-Wishram language is still spoken by five elders).
- Upper Umpqua: Wolverton Orton, last recorded in (1942)
- Vegliot Dalmatian: Tuone Udaina (Italian: Antonio Udina) (10 June 1898)
- Wappo : Laura Fish Somersal (1990)
- Weyto: while attested as living in 1770, 18th century explorers could find no fluent speakers
- Wiyot: Della Prince (1962)
- Yana: Ishi (1916)
- Yola related to English: (mid-19th century)
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