What do we do when a language is dying?

The Pitkern language is dying. It’s dying because it has a small number of speakers and it’s not the language of opportunity for the youngest generations, who are moving away to Australia and New Zealand. Even the Pitkern-language version of Wikipedia has been proposed for closure – twice. What can we do? What should we do? Is saving endangered languages like saving endangered species? Are there reasons to let a language die? I look at all this in my latest article for The Week… and when it comes to Pitkern, there’s an additional twist. Read it now:

Why do we fight so hard to preserve endangered languages?

 

4 responses to “What do we do when a language is dying?

  1. How is Pitkern a mix of “Old English and Tahitian”? I studied Old English in graduate school. The sentences you transcribed are like Modern English. And if Pitkern is 200 years old, its speakers would have had no contact with Old English, which morphed into Middle English more than a thousand years ago.

    • I did notice that issue, too, but it’s evident that their article meant old (as in not current) English, not Old English – although I suspect no one on Pitcairn or Norfolk really knows about Old English (even the general educated population of Canada, the US, and England tend to think Shakespeare is Old English when, of course, it’s Early Modern English).

      Point of correction, though: The usual demarcating date between Old English and Middle English is arbitrarily set at 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest, but the greatest force for change in English through the Middle English period was the French influence (both through contact effects and through removing English from official status and consigning it to the level of common speech, more susceptible to change) – and the French influence started in 1066; thus, it’s more accurate to say that Old English was still Old English a thousand years ago but was soon to undergo a significant transformation. Early Modern English is typically arbitrarily set as starting in 1476, the year Caxton started his printing press, which was an important force for standardization, but of course that’s arbitrary too.

      (Yes, I studied Old English, too, and the history of the English language.)

  2. I feel you. My parents are from South Asia and I kinda speak their language and it’s sad because my kids probably won’t know it and eventually their kids etc will be saying, oh yeah I think our great-grandparents were from Asia or sometime.

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