Extinct language

Eteocypriot writing, Amathous, Cyprus, 500–300 BC, Ashmolean Museum

An extinct language is a language that no longer has any first-language or second-language speakers, especially if the language also has no living descendants. In contrast, a dead language is a language that no longer has any first-language speakers, but does have second-language speakers, such as Latin. A dormant language is a dead language that still serves as a symbol of ethnic identity to an ethnic group; these languages are often undergoing a process of revitalisation. Languages that have first-language speakers are known as modern or living languages to contrast them with dead languages, especially in educational contexts.

In the modern period, languages have typically become extinct as a result of the process of cultural assimilation leading to language shift, and the gradual abandonment of a native language in favor of a foreign lingua franca, largely those of European countries.

As of the 2000s, a total of roughly 7,000 natively spoken languages existed worldwide. Most of these are minor languages in danger of extinction; one estimate published in 2004 expected that some 90% of the currently spoken languages will have become extinct by 2050.

Language death

Sisters Maxine Wildcat Barnett (1925–2021) (left) and Josephine Wildcat Bigler (1921–2016); two of the last elderly speakers of Yuchi, visiting their grandmother's grave in a cemetery behind Pickett Chapel in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. According to the sisters, their grandmother had insisted that Yuchi be their native language.

Normally the transition from a spoken to an extinct language occurs when a language undergoes language death by being directly replaced by a different one. For example, many Native American languages were replaced by English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, or Dutch as a result of European colonization of the Americas.[citation needed]

In contrast to an extinct language, which no longer has any speakers, or any written use, a historical language may remain in use as a literary or liturgical language long after it ceases to be spoken natively. Such languages are sometimes also referred to as "dead languages", but more typically as classical languages. The most prominent Western example of such a language is Latin, but comparable cases are found throughout world history due to the universal tendency to retain a historical stage of a language as the liturgical language.[citation needed]

Historical languages with living descendants that have undergone significant language change may be considered "extinct", especially in cases where they did not leave a corpus of literature or liturgy that remained in widespread use (see corpus language), as is the case with Old English or Old High German relative to their contemporary descendants, English and German.[citation needed]

Some degree of misunderstanding can result from designating languages such as Old English and Old High German as extinct, or Latin dead, while ignoring their evolution as a language. This is expressed in the apparent paradox "Latin is a dead language, but Latin never died." A language such as Etruscan, for example, can be said to be both extinct and dead: inscriptions are ill understood even by the most knowledgeable scholars, and the language ceased to be used in any form long ago, so that there have been no speakers, native or non-native, for many centuries. In contrast, Old English, Old High German and Latin never ceased evolving as living languages, nor did they become totally extinct as Etruscan did. Through time Latin underwent both common and divergent changes in phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon, and continues today as the native language of hundreds of millions of people, renamed as different Romance languages and dialects (French, Italian, Spanish, Corsican, Asturian, Ladin, etc.). Similarly, Old English and Old High German never died, but developed into various forms of modern English and German. With regard to the written language, skills in reading or writing Etruscan are all but non-existent, but trained people can understand and write Old English, Old High German, and Latin. Latin differs from the Germanic counterparts in that an approximation of its ancient form is still employed to some extent liturgically. This last observation illustrates that for Latin, Old English, or Old High German to be described accurately as dead or extinct, the language in question must be conceptualized as frozen in time at a particular state of its history. This is accomplished by periodizing English and German as Old; for Latin, an apt clarifying adjective is Classical, which also normally includes designation of high or formal register.[citation needed]

Bilingual LatinPunic inscription at the theatre in Leptis Magna in present-day Libya

Minor languages are endangered mostly due to economic and cultural globalization, cultural assimilation, and development. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant lingua francas of world commerce: English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and French.

In their study of contact-induced language change, American linguists Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman (1991) stated that in situations of cultural pressure (where populations are forced to 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, when people migrate to a new country, their children attend school in the country, and the schools are likely to teach them in the majority language of the country rather than their parents' native language.[citation needed]

Language revival

Language revival is the attempt to re-introduce an extinct language in everyday use by a new generation of native speakers. The optimistic neologism "sleeping beauty languages" has been used to express such a hope, though scholars usually refer to such languages as dormant.

In practice, this has only happened on a large scale successfully once: the revival of the Hebrew language. Hebrew had survived for millennia since the Babylonian exile as a liturgical language, but not as a vernacular language. The revival of Hebrew has been largely successful due to extraordinarily favourable conditions, notably the creation of a nation state (modern Israel in 1948) in which it became the official language, as well as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's extreme dedication to the revival of the language, by creating new words for the modern terms Hebrew lacked.

Revival attempts for minor extinct languages with no status as a liturgical language typically have more modest results. The Cornish language revival has proven at least partially successful: after a century of effort there are 3,500 claimed native speakers, enough for UNESCO to change its classification from "extinct" to "critically endangered". A Livonian language revival movement to promote the use of the Livonian language has managed to train a few hundred people to have some knowledge of it.

Recently extinct languages

This is a list of languages reported as having become extinct since 2010. For a more complete list, see Lists of extinct languages.

Date Language Language family Region Terminal speaker Notes
2 May 2023 Columbia-Moses language Salishan Washington (state), US Pauline Stensgar
5 October 2022 Mednyj Aleut Mixed AleutRussian Commander Islands, Russia Gennady Yakovlev
16 February 2022 Yahgan Isolated Magallanes, Chile Cristina Calderón
25 September 2021 Wukchumni dialect of Tule-Kaweah Yokuts Yok-Utian (proposed) California, United States Marie Wilcox
27 August 2021 Yuchi Isolated Tennessee (formerly), Oklahoma, United States Maxine Wildcat Barnett
7 March 2021 Bering Aleut Eskimo Aleut Kamchatka Krai, Russia Vera Timoshenko
2 February 2021 Juma Kawahiva Rondônia, Brazil Aruka Juma
2 December 2020 Tuscarora Iroquoian North Carolina, United States Kenneth Patterson
4 April 2020 Aka-Cari Great Andamanese Andaman Islands, India Licho
23 March 2019 Ngandi Arnhem Northern Territory, Australia C. W. Daniels
4 January 2019 Tehuelche Chonan Patagonia, Argentina Dora Manchado
9 December 2016 Mandan Siouan North Dakota, United States Edwin Benson
30 August 2016 Wichita Caddoan Oklahoma, United States Doris McLemore
29 July 2016 Gugu Thaypan Pama-Nyungan Queensland, Australia Tommy George
11 February 2016 Nuchatlaht dialect of Nuu-chah-nulth Wakashan British Columbia, Canada Alban Michael
4 January 2016 Whulshootseed Salishan Washington, United States Ellen Williams
4 February 2014 Klallam Salishan Washington, United States Hazel Sampson
By 2014 Demushbo Panoan Amazon Basin, Brazil
5 June 2013 Livonian Uralic > Finnic Latvia Grizelda Kristiņa Under a process of revival.
26 March 2013 Yurok Algic California, United States Archie Thompson Under a process of revival.
By 2013 Sabüm Mon–Khmer Perak, Malaysia 2013 extinction is based on ISO changing it from living to extinct in 2013
2 October 2012 Cromarty dialect of Scots Germanic Northern Scotland, United Kingdom Bobby Hogg
11 July 2012 Upper Chinook Chinookan Oregon, United States Gladys Thompson
10 March 2012 Holikachuk Na-Dene Alaska, United States Wilson "Tiny" Deacon
c. 2012 Dhungaloo Pama-Nyungan Queensland, Australia Roy Hatfield
c. 2012 Ngasa Nilo-Saharan Tanzania Most speakers have shifted to Chaga
by 2012 Mardijker Portuguese-based Creole Jakarta, Indonesia Oma Mimi Abrahams
10 April 2011 Apiaká Tupian Mato Grosso, Brazil Pedrinho Kamassuri
2011 Lower Arrernte Pama-Nyungan Northern Territory, Australia Brownie Doolan Perrurle
by 2011 Anserma Chocoan Antioquia Department, Colombia
24 October 2010 Pazeh Austronesian Taiwan Pan Jin-yu
20 August 2010 Cochin Indo-Portuguese Creole Portuguese-based Creole Southern India William Rozario
26 January 2010 Aka-Bo Andamanese Andaman Islands, India Boa Sr.

See also


  1. ^ Last surviving native speaker; it is being taught as a second language on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
  2. ^ Last surviving native speaker; some children still learn it as a second language.

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