Around the world, a spoken language vanishes every two weeks, according to statistics presented at a United Nations conference on indigenous languages. It seems hard to imagine that a group of people would suddenly stop speaking a certain language. But consider this: According to the U.N., most languages are spoken by very few people. About 97 percent of the world’s population speaks just 4 percent of its languages, while 3 percent speaks 96 percent of them.
Languages have been dying for centuries. Around 8,000 BC, Earth was home to more than 20,000 dialects. Today that number stands between 6,000 and 7,000, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lists more than 2,000 of them as vulnerable or endangered.
There are a few ways for languages to die. The first and most obvious, is if all the people who speak it have died. This may occur, for example, if war or a natural disaster wipes out small populations or tribes in remote areas, like the 2004 earthquake that struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, triggering a tsunami that left 230,000 people dead. Another killer of language is foreign disease. As Mount Holyoke University explains: “By the time of exploration, diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox had been common in Europe for centuries, meaning that individuals had built antibodies and immunity. When they traveled to foreign lands, they took the diseases with them, infecting indigenous peoples. The inhabitants of the New World had never been exposed to such diseases, and as a consequence, millions died in short periods of time.”
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