Saving Dying Languages; August 2002; Scientific American Magazine; by W. Wayt Gibbs; 8 Page(s)
Ten years ago Michael Krauss sent a shudder through the discipline of linguistics with his prediction that half the 6,000 or so languages spoken in the world would cease to be uttered within a century. Krauss, a language professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, had founded the Alaska Native Language Center to try to preserve as much as possible of the 20 tongues still known to the state's indigenous people. Only two of those languages were being taught to children. Several others existed only in the memories of a few aged speakers; the rest were rapidly falling from use. The situation in Alaska was emblematic of a global pattern, Krauss observed in the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. Unless scientists and community leaders directed a worldwide effort to stabilize the decline of local languages, he warned, nine tenths of the linguistic diversity of humankind would probably be doomed to extinction.
Krauss's prediction was little more than an educated guess, but other respected linguists had been clanging out similar alarms. Kenneth L. Hale of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted in the same journal issue that eight languages on which he had done fieldwork had since passed into extinction. A 1990 survey in Australia found that 70 of the 90 surviving Aboriginal languages were no longer used regularly by all age groups. The same was true for all but 20 of the 175 Native American languages spoken or remembered in the U.S., Krauss told a congressional panel in 1992.