On The Death and Life of Languages
Yale University Press, $59.95 hb, 367 pp
At the moment, there are about 5,000 world languages, and ninety per cent of these languages are spoken by about five per cent of the world’s population. A pessimistic forecast would predict that by 2,100 only 500 of these languages will still exist; an optimistic forecast might put the figure at 2,500, about the same rate as the extinction of mammals. Many of the languages under threat are spoken in countries that are close to Australia: Papua New Guinea has 850, Indonesia 670, and India 380. (Australia is listed as still having 200, but many Australian linguists would put this figure much lower.) It is a relatively easy matter to rally the troops, the money and the organisational forces to attempt to save furry mammals; it is a much more difficult matter to rally support to save languages. This book, by the eminent French linguist Claude Hagège, assesses how and why languages die, what the cost of their deaths is, and whether anything can be done to prevent their annihilation.