Almost every country around the world has at least one minority language, whether it be official or unofficial, that is spoken by a group numerically smaller than the states whole population. Throughout history, minority languages have in some cases risen to become the main official language and fallen into obscurity. The fight against the ‘dead language’ status rages on worldwide.
Before looking at some specific cases, there are two similar terms which are relevant: ‘dead language’ and ‘extinct language’. A ‘dead language’ is a language that is no longer the native language of anyone, for example a dead language may still be in use but still be considered a dead language like Latin. An ‘extinct language’ is a language that no longer has any speakers or is no longer in real use. Generally, a few languages become extinct each year and with the pandemic taking a toll on vulnerable communities this number is rising. The most recent extinct language is Mednyj Aleut, an Inuit language native to the Kamchatka region of Russia in the far east.
Throughout history, there have been efforts to stamp out minority languages into order to destroy a certain group’s culture and assimilate them into the majority culture of the country. This has even happened in Sweden and Norway with the Sami peoples in the north and in Denmark with Greenland. Most if not all European countries have attempted this, with varying degrees of success, with their minorities in Europe (e.g. Sorbian in Germany, Basque in Spain, Breton in France, UK with Irish, etc…) and abroad in their colonies (e.g. Native American languages in the Americas, some areas of Africa, etc…), a legacy which has often been continued and is in some cases continuing in the post-colonial nations which emerged throughout the modern era.
There are different ways that the ‘powers-that-be’ have forced language assimilation. It could be through kidnapping the children of minority families and educating them in majority culture schools where they are punished for speaking their own languages and exhibiting their own cultures (this happened in Sweden too), it could be through only providing public services and education in the majority language, slowly dissuading each generation that comes from using their family’s native language. It could be through creating a stigma against the use of a certain language, painting it as ‘lower-class’ or ‘crude’. Thankfully however, in our times most of these have been thrown out and replaced with more inclusive policies towards minority languages. Though Sweden may have had a spotty past including the whole inventing eugenics thing, they have a very inclusive approach to providing multilingual public services and other countries are undertaking widespread schemes to promote language revival.
If a language becomes extinct, all hope is not necessarily lost. Language revival is the term used for when a dead or extinct language is reintroduced with the end goal of developing new native speakers. Ireland is probably the most well-known example of this. Long story short, once upon a time everyone in Ireland spoke some form of Irish then a bunch of Vikings came over and set up a few cities (like Dublin) and then fast forward, the Normans (Breakaway Frenchmen who conquered England) conquered a few areas and introduced a weird French-Irish hybrid to some areas, then fast forward again and the Scottish king James, newly elected king of England decided to send over loads of English and Scottish settlers to Ireland which cause huge upheaval. Irish was made illegal and over the centuries the use of Irish went from maybe 90%-ish to around less than 10% (very VERY paraphrased history of Ireland mind you). Recently there have been huge efforts to reintroduce Irish as a native language including Irish language TV, radio, road signs, public services, you name it. Irish language schools where only Irish is spoken are insanely popular. As of today, 39.8% of the population claim they can speak Irish however despite this, actual native speakers and day-to-day use of the language remains proportionally low with only around 60,000 native speakers (known as the Gaeltacht).
There are so many interesting minority languages that I didn’t get to talk about like the various native American language that have survived so much, so I implore you to do your own research. Try and see if there are any current minority languages in or near your home area or in your home country. If not there most likely were at some point, most modern languages are basically mish mashes of several minority languages like German or Italian. See what you can do to help keep this culture alive and keep the world interesting!
Album suggestion: ‘Radio Suicide’ – Makala Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap, French