Language is arguably the most universally important of human abilities, making it possible to pass on information and experiences like a baton through generations.
But about half of the 7,000 languages spoken around the world will not last the end of this century, according to the latest predictions. There is no single cause for the extinction of a language. Some of the common causes are the overbearing dominance of a few languages, such as Arabic, French and English, the social stigmas attached to using minority languages and the disruption of traditional ways of life.
Linguists argue that it’s in the interest of humankind to save the languages that are at risk. “The loss of a language can also mean the loss of an entire culture,” says the director of the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS, University of London, Mandana Seyfeddinipur. She adds that there could be remedies to diseases that might never be passed on because after the last speaker dies, no one could understand any texts they left behind. “When a language dies then we’ll never know what those people knew,” she says.
Linguists say the ethnic violence directed at minorities in Iraq and Syria has placed additional strains on endangered languages. “It’s almost in the definition of an endangered language that it be spoken by a minority and right now and in parts of the Middle East they’re either being killed or suppressed,” says director of the Endangered Languages Project, Lyle Campbell. Some of those Middle Eastern languages at risk are expected to be extinct in 60 years.
The most endangered language in the Middle East, according to Campbell, is currently a dialect of Northeastern Neo-Aramaic found in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains region of Iraq. There are about 2,000 speakers who have suffered greatly at the hands of the Islamic State, says Campbell. The dialect has its roots in Aramaic, once a widely spoken language that some experts believe was spoken by Jesus and the region’s rulers.
A small population of native speakers doesn’t necessarily mean a language is on the brink of extinction. Campbell’s organization categorizes the vast number of endangered languages into four sub-groups: at risk, endangered, severely endangered and “vitality unknown.”
In addition to the number of speakers, researchers also consider whether the population is on the rise or fall and whether the younger generation is engaged with the mother tongue. Campbell admits this is not as yet an exact science because the amount of data is severely limited: “It’s often a best guess, but the really endangered ones pop out at you.”
Relatively speaking, the Arab world is not one of the most linguistically diverse parts of the globe. “Arabic has wiped through the region over the years and swept up the smaller languages,” says Seyfeddinipur.
It’s an uphill struggle to preserve what’s left. “We’re fighting a battle against time,” she says.
Her colleagues agree. “You have the big languages in the Middle East; Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish, but not much else,” says Bruno Herin, a linguist from the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, in Paris.
Some governments in the region give Arabic more official status than the minority languages. In Saudi Arabia only Arabic is officially recognized. “We have to pretend that other languages there are Arabic dialects if we want to go and study them,” says Campbell.
Herin is documenting the endangered Domari language in Lebanon with the support of a grant from Seyfeddinipur’s department. The people who speak Domari, known as the Dom, are branded as the “gypsies of the Middle East,” says Herin. “There’s a big stigma attached to the term,” he says, “so they try to keep themselves hidden.” The Dom have no ethnic or linguistic relation to Europe’s Roma populations.
The effort of Dom communities to be invisible makes it impossible to know exactly how many Domari speakers there are. Herin estimates they’re in the thousands, not the hundreds.
In 2009, before the Syrian conflict began, Herin was visiting a friend in Aleppo. He overhead his friend’s cleaning lady speaking on the phone with a family member. Unable to recognize her apparent dialect of Arabic, he spoke to the maid and enquired further. She explained that she was speaking Domari, not Arabic and that’s when he first became interested in the Dom. “Someone from outside of the region might easily mistake it for Arabic. The Dom have borrowed a lot of speech patterns from Arabs over the years,” says Herin.
Domari is an Indic language, originating in the Indian subcontinent. At some point in their history, the Dom migrated from South Asia to the Middle East. Ever since, they have traditionally been merchant nomads, says Herin.
Today, there are Dom populations in western Syria, Lebanon and southern Turkey. Since the civil war in Syria began, they’ve been the victims of violence from various fighting factions, says Herin. “They’re perceived as unbelievers by some rebels,” he says. “They aren’t seen as good Muslims despite identifying themselves as Sunni.” That discrimination has pushed the Dom to migrate to Lebanon and Turkey.
When minorities become refugees, it’s never a good thing for the survival of their language, says Seyfeddinipur. The separation from their homeland and disruption of their traditions often means the younger generations take more interest in the language of their adopted country. This certainly seems to be the case with Domari. “The Dom youth prefer Arabic—the youngest speakers of Domari are 30 years old,” says Herin. He gives the Domari language 60 years to become extinct.
To make matters worse, the language has no written form. “When the last Domari speaker dies, it will be as though the language never was. That’s why I’m intervening,” says Herin.
Saving a language from extinction involves a two-pronged attack: The first prong is to document and describe the language so that future linguists can study it and future generations can learn it. The second prong is revitalization, which seeks to increase the number of speakers. That is considerably harder because it means researchers have to provide a cultural and social context for communities to be bilingual. Success rates are historically low, says Seyfeddinipur.
Campbell also recognizes the odds, but looks to previous successes for inspiration. “We are seeing more and more language obituaries,” he says. “But Welsh in the U.K. is considered a great success story and proves it can be done.”
Herin is preparing for a trip to Lebanon in early 2015 where he will consult with Domari speakers. He hopes to come up with a way to codify the language in writing, which he hopes will lay the foundation for the language to thrive again. “The Dom would probably prefer an Arabic script to a Latin alphabet,” he says. “That’s the best solution because they’ll be able to apply their Arabic literacy.”
He also hopes to encourage the Dom to teach the language to their younger generations with the production of formal grammar and a multimedia dictionary.
Faced with the grim statistic that some 3,500 languages all over the world are expected to bite the dust over the next 90 or so years, Seyfeddinipur insists it’s worth the effort preserve dying languages even if native speakers are unlikely to embrace them again. “The way we speak shapes the way with think. When a language dies we loose a community’s collective wisdom,” she says, “Why is the British Museum important? Why is The Smithsonian important?”