Marcelo Dascal
Endangered Languages

1. Three questions about the death of languages

Roughly six thousand languages are known to be spoken today in the world. Four of them are spoken by more than 500 million people each. Many of them -- perhaps half of the total number -- are spoken by less than 500 speakers. An estimated two thousand languages are considered, by various criteria, "endangered". That is, they are about to become extinct in the next decade or so.

As we are here talking about endangered languages, the last remaining speaker of some language somewhere may be dying of old age. It is likely that his or her language leaves no written trace of its existence, no fossil record for future linguists or anthropologists to decipher. The rich human experience embedded in its sounds, syntax, and semantic categorizations, in the stories and myths transmitted through it by parents to children -- generation after generation -- will be lost forever. Not knowing anything about that language, even the silence it leaves behind will be lost for future generations.

The questions I want to address here, on the occasion of the launching of our new School of Languages Building, whose erection will be possible thanks to a generous donation by the Webb Foundation, are these:

A. Should we - - as human beings, Jews, and scientists - - be concerned about the fate of these languages ?

B. If so, Why ?

C. What should and could be done about it ?

Chapter 2

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