Most languages spoken in the world today are not static, meaning that they change with the times, may incorporate new words, and steal words from other languages. Language is alive and thriving when the population that speaks it as a primary means of communication remains. When there is no native population of language speakers left, the language is often called a dead or extinct language. Even if there are a few speakers left, but most of the younger population no longer speaks a language, it can be called extinct or moribund.
The label of extinct language doesn’t mean that no one remains who can speak the language. Several languages like Latin and Coptic are used for ceremonial purposes, and people may still learn these languages in school. Typically, no one, except students of Latin, would spend much time communicating solely in it. It is truly like the old poem taught to many Latin students:
- Latin is a language
As dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans
And now it’s killing me.
There are many situations that can create an extinct language. In the case of Latin, it quickly morphed into the many Romance languages spoken today. English derives from its own extinct language, Anglo-Saxon, and from an infusion of French words. Sometimes a language can change so much and so quickly, that even though you can see commonalities between the extinct and the new language, it’s mainly unrecognizable.
Language extinction may also occur if a natural disaster or genocide destroys a whole population of speakers. Alternately, people may live in areas where two languages are spoken. Gradually one becomes the language of choice while the other dies off. Additionally, an extinct language may occur when people are forced to give up their native language, as is the case with many Native American languages. When tribes were forcibly relocated or where English programs became mandated for Native American children, several important languages were completely killed off.
When a language is dying or endangered, or even sometimes when it is an extinct language, efforts can be made to revive it. The most successful rescue of a near extinct language is that made by the state of Israel to purposefully create Hebrew as a national language. Sometimes language revival comes from outside the speaking population. The use of Navajo Code Talkers during World War II effectively revived Navajo, thought its speaking population remains small.
If you’re looking at extinct language lists, you’ll find numerous ones on the Internet. The numbers are staggering. As mentioned above, some of these extinctions result from rapid change of the language to a now different form like modern English, Irish (or Gaelic as it is sometimes referred to), German or French. Others died because other languages were either used by choice, or through force, and in rare cases because of natural disaster or genocide.