(Inside Science) — Sometime in the 1970s, a linguist named James Rementer, moved into the house of an elderly woman in Oklahoma. That woman, Nora Thompson Dean, was one of the last persons to speak Unami, a dialect of the Delaware (Lenni Lenape) language. When she died in 1984, the language spoken by the Native Americans who left their place names all over New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and signed the famous peace treaty with William Penn in 1683, went silent.
Thousands of languages have gone extinct in the last few centuries, and an economist at Case Western Reserve University thinks the language of any people whose total population is fewer than 35,000, is possibly endangered.
That does not mean they will disappear, said David Clingingsmith.
“I think that’s what the data says on average.”
There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, and 95 percent of the world’s population speak 300 of them. Half the world speaks the largest 16. According to the Endangered Languages Project, some 40 percent of the world's languages are threatened.
It depends on circumstances. For instance, scientists still encounter tribes in places like the Amazon that have been totally isolated from the rest of the world with their own languages. Despite having populations numbering in the hundreds, their languages only are in danger if they have too much contact with the outside world, Clingingsmith said. Without that contact, there is not much pressure to change.
There still are places in Europe, where a relatively small population speaks minority languages descended from Vulgar Latin that are mutually unintelligible from each other. Examples include Picard and Walloon, both spoken in parts of France and Belgium. Even in Great Britain, there is a small population that still speaks Cornish, and Welsh never disappeared, he said.
But, when a language does disappear, a unique view of the world goes with it.
Once one is gone it is almost impossible to resurrect — Hebrew being a rare exception.
Possibly 4,000 years old, it stopped being a spoken language sometime during the Roman Empire and existed only as a language of prayer — written, not spoken since that time. (Jesus probably spoke Aramaic at home.) But with the rise of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, some thought a Jewish nation could only succeed if it had its own language and Hebrew was the logical choice. So, one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, invented modern Hebrew.
When his son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, was born in 1882, Ben-Yehuda and his wife spoke to him only in Hebrew and protected him from hearing other languages for years, making up words and syntax as they went along. Ben-Zion became the first person to have Hebrew as a native tongue in 1,800 years. Other families followed. Ben-Yehuda also helped create a Hebrew dictionary and form an Academy of the Hebrew Language, inventing words that did not exist in classical liturgical Hebrew.
Sometimes it worked: The Hebrew word for "computer," the academy decided, was maschev. Sometimes it didn’t: The Hebrew word for "television" is televiztia.
Today, 9 million people speak Hebrew, almost 8 million in Israel as a first language, and Hebrew has a thriving literature, including a Nobel laureate, Shmuel Yosef Agnon.
Other attempts weren't so successful, including the attempt to recreate Gaelic as the spoken language of Ireland. Some speak it, but mostly as a second language. While all government business in Israel is in Hebrew, the government of the Irish Republic still communicates in English and almost all of Ireland’s great literature is in English.
Sometimes governments act to protect a minority language against the majority. The efforts of the government in Quebec to protect French are a good example. Clingingsmith didn’t think that intervention necessary. As long as generations pass the language on it is not threatened. Dutch speakers, for example, do not feel threatened even though most people in the Netherlands also speak English.
The rise of English as a lingua franca – or a world-wide common language – does not pose a major threat to other languages, said Salikoko Mufwene, a linguist at the University of Chicago. In many places only the elites speak it and in some, China for example, you are more likely to find someone speaking English at a tourist market than in the government. Adoption of English is not uniform, and a large portion of the population has no reason to change, he said.
But dead languages often leave whispers. Delaware, for example, is carved into American geography. Manhattan, Passaic, Shenandoah, Ohio, all are Delaware names.
After Nora Thompson Dean died, all that remained of her language was Rementer’s recordings and a 12,000-word dictionary. The only other person she could speak to was her brother, Edward. And even if other Delawares indicated they would like to learn the language, that would not bring it back. They would have to use it regularly and make it part of their lives.
The difference between economists like Clingingsmith and linguists like himself, Mufwene said, is that economists look at census numbers; linguists look at the “vitality” of a language, whether it is alive, spoken by one generation to another.
When Dean died, Delaware died. Dean’s brother, Edward, who died in 2002, had no one to talk to. He was the end. Wekwihéle.*
*The Delaware word for gone.
Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. He is the author of nine books on science and the history of science, and has taught science journalism at Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He tweets at @shurkin.