The Leaning Tower of Babel.What We Lose When Languages Die. Ross Perlin. FP. April  2024

The world’s 190-odd nation-states are home to 7,168 “living languages,” according to the latest figure from Ethnologue, a widely used language database. The implications of this enormous disproportion are obvious, given that few governments support more than one or a handful of official languages.

The vast majority of languages represent communities that are much older and more localized than nation-states, and the mismatch between states and languages is at least one driver of a planet-wide shift in human consciousness: the staggering loss of linguistic diversity.

Linguists consider at least half of all human languages to be endangered. Already most of these tongues have under 10,000 speakers, whereas hundreds have fewer than ten, and many are thought to have just one. (The situation is particularly dire for the world’s 157 sign languages, as tallied by Ethnologue.)

Speakers of Arabic, English, French, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish are legion, while lesser-known tongues dwindle away. According to one estimate, 96 percent of the world’s population speaks just four percent of all languages, which means that the striking obverse is also true: just four percent of the world’s population speaks 96 percent of all languages.

Like biodiversity, linguistic diversity is not evenly distributed, remaining strongest in “hotspots” such as Papua New Guinea, equatorial Africa, the Amazon, and the Himalayas, all places where, at least until recently, topography, subsistence economies, and distance from centralized states have helped smaller language groups survive.

The new language hotspots today are in cities that are migrant hubs such as Jakarta, Lagos, London, New York, and Paris, where peoples from all over increasingly cluster for work, education, access to services, a chance for survival, and a taste of modern life. Today’s New York is the most linguistically diverse city not only in the world but in the history of the world, but the survival of linguistic diversity in such crucibles of contact is far from assured.

Languages have always come and gone—and sometimes even languages with very small numbers of speakers have survived for generations—but the current rate of loss is unprecedented. In many ways, it is parallel to the planet’s accelerating loss of animal and plant species.

Arguably, it started with the millennia-long, ongoing spread of agriculture, which enabled certain language groups to increase in number, take new territories, and dominate smaller-scale and more linguistically diverse hunter-gatherer and nomadic groups.

In recent centuries, the conquests of colonial empires, hyper-urbanization, the ever-expanding networks of capitalism, and the monolingual imperatives of nation-states have all driven the vanishing of languages. The spread of formal education systems and new forms of media and communications also make it harder for smaller languages to hang on in a changing world.

Languages have always come and gone, but the current rate of loss is unprecedented.

Speakers of dominant languages often shrug at the disappearance of these smaller languages. After all, they wonder, wouldn’t the world be a better place if everybody understood one another? That kind of thinking not only forgets that speakers of the same language are perfectly capable of fighting and killing one another but also completely overlooks the scientific, artistic, and deeply human benefits of linguistic diversity.

In A Myriad of Tongues: How Languages Reveal Differences in How We Think, the anthropological linguist Caleb Everett dwells on the richness of the world’s disappearing tongues. Far from being primitive dialects, endangered languages teem with oral literature, historical and scientific knowledge, unique linguistic features, and other wonders that can rarely be fully translated into other languages.

A growing body of research also shows that it is best for children to be educated in their mother tongue and that maintaining one’s mother tongue can even be good for one’s mental and physical health. Preserving languages can also be a matter of justice, given the history of displacement, persecution, and marginalization of most speakers of endangered languages.

The demise of any language is not inevitable. With the political support of local or national governments and the devotion of sufficient economic resources, every language can handle all the threats, temptations, and communicative demands that come with both the homogenizing of national identities and the pressures of globalization.

But most languages do not enjoy that kind of backing. Extraordinary economic, political, and social strains produce ruptures in intergenerational language transmission as young people cease to speak the way their elders do. Speakers of a language begin to feel out of place in the world; it is not just that access to jobs, schools, and other opportunities are tied to dominant languages such as English, Mandarin, and Spanish but also that speakers of tongues such as Cree, Nahuatl, and Zhuang have continually been made to feel ashamed of what and how they speak and, by extension, of who they are.

Such languages face an uphill battle to survive, never mind to flourish. It is precisely the endangered half of the world’s languages about which the least is known, with few if any books or recordings to document most of them—sometimes little beyond a bare list of words.

Only in the past few decades has there been a serious organized effort even among linguists (often a step behind missionaries) to document endangered languages and develop a set of practices, protocols, and tools for the purpose. At the same time, speakers of small and endangered languages are not sitting idly by. Hundreds of communities around the world have started trying to reclaim or revitalize their languages—a new global movement with major political implications of its own.


In A Myriad of Tongues, Everett sketches the tremendous diversity of the world’s languages. Most belong to one of hundreds of overarching language families, including Austronesian, Indo-European (which includes English), and Niger-Congo. But there are also well over a hundred language “isolates” with no proven connection to any other known language.

Although language families trace common descent from a putative protolanguage typically thousands of years in the past, languages also develop features and structures independently or change through contact with other languages.

Everett offers a sophisticated account of how researchers, by finally beginning to draw on a more representative sample of the world’s languages, are making connections between language, thought, and “other aspects of the human experience.”

Among the more ineffable things that the world stands to lose with diminishing linguistic diversity are the subtly but significantly different ways that human groups have of inhabiting and understanding their natural and social worlds.

Languages do not simply offer different labels for the same universal set of items and concepts, with translation always bridging the gap. There may be cross-linguistic tendencies and commonalities, but there is no single language we can call Earthling, no linguistic “view from nowhere.” Every language carries within it the grain of a particular place and history.

Different languages, suggests Everett, encode and affect “the human cognitive experience” in different ways. With careful phrasing and an emphasis on empirical evidence, he sidesteps addressing in a definitive way one of the classic controversies of linguistics, about what is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—that “languages have strong effects on their speakers’ nonlinguistic thoughts,” as Everett puts it.

In other words, people do not just think in a given language; that language shapes the way they think. The debate over whether this is indeed true has raged for nearly a century, with many nonlinguists discerning a kernel of common sense in the proposition even as most linguists have resisted what they see as a largely untestable and oversimplifying claim.

Until recently, that is. Everett draws on dozens of recent studies that point to languages’ deeply divergent ways of handling time, space, and relationships, among other central human preoccupations, and to how these may linger in minds and cultures beyond the moment of speech.

More speculatively, he also sees intriguing connections between linguistic features and certain natural environments and associated manners of living, or lifeways. In other words, the old saw that the Inuit people have 50 words for snow may be wildly exaggerated (the original observation by the anthropologist Franz Boas isolated only four ways of describing snow), but there is something to it.

Take time, for instance. The linguist Benjamin Whorf (of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) claimed that the Hopi language in what is now Arizona has no words referring to time, suggesting that Hopi speakers as a result might not experience time in the same way as, for example, English speakers.

Whatever the (hotly debated) facts may be in Hopi, it is manifestly true that many languages large and small either dispense with tense altogether or encode something other than a division into past, present, and future. Karitiana, an Amazonian language that Everett researches, distinguishes only two tenses: future and nonfuture, the latter mingling both past and present.

Yagua, also spoken in the Amazon, has eight tenses, five of which are for different periods in the past. To speak Yagua well, one needs to make fine distinctions about timing—for example, attaching the suffix -siymaa to verbs to mean “between approximately one week and one month ago.”

More intricate still are the many metaphors for time in different languages. Where English speakers see the future as being spatially ahead or in front of them, speakers of Aymara in Bolivia and Peru see the future as being behind them and the past in front, as in the expression nayra mara, which is literally “the year I can see” but figuratively “last year.” Associated gestures are an indication that such expressions may seep into thought. Whereas English speakers often point backward in discussing the past, Aymara speakers do the opposite.

Such cases multiply when it comes to space, color, and noun categorization, including by kinship, gender, and shape. For instance, speakers of the Berinmo language of Papua New Guinea have the word nol for what English speakers call green and blue. (Indeed, many languages have such a “grue” color.) Berinmo speakers also have the word wor, which covers English speakers’ yellows and bright greens.

An experiment testing the ability of Berinmo and English speakers to recall different color chips found that each group did better with chips that aligned clearly in terms of their respective linguistic categories for understanding colors, compared with chips whose color was more ambiguous. This is language-based categorical perception, in which “people discriminate stimuli more neatly because the stimuli fall into distinct conceptual categories,” according to Everett.

How much these fascinatingly different conceptions matter in everyday life is a “thornier issue,” Everett admits. Some would argue that the effects of linguistic differences are relatively slight, appearing mainly under carefully calibrated experimental conditions. No one would dispute that different lexicons on some level reflect the different priorities, lifeways, and environments of speakers; indeed, there are more words for snow in languages spoken where snow exists.

But relatively few of the presumably “deeper” grammatical differences are readily explained by social, cultural, or environmental variables. Certain ones clearly are—including levels of politeness in more stratified societies and directional markers based on local topography—but the fact that English speakers pluralize nouns and Mandarin speakers do not has to be seen as an arbitrary detail of linguistic history without any nonlinguistic consequences.

Sometimes, the differences between languages are merely that, with many linguistic features essentially random parameters that have no deeper cultural or cognitive meaning. Not only is there currently no basis for seeing it otherwise, but the resulting pseudoscientific generalizations could be downright dangerous. Imagine if people started believing that Hopi speakers had no sense of time, whereas Yagua speakers had the most sophisticated understanding of it, and English speakers were somewhere in the middle. Actual linguistic practices are simply too dynamic, situational, and mixed to generalize about in this way.

Nonetheless, A Myriad of Tongues gently suggests that certain connections between language, culture, and thought can be found. Farmers with softer diets—and thus a tendency for their top teeth to protrude in overbites and overjets—may be more likely to use labiodental sounds, such as f and v, that combine the top front teeth and the bottom lip, whereas hunter-gatherers, with their edge-to-edge bites, in which the top and bottom front teeth are flush, use these sounds less.

Although the use of commercial dyes in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies has recently enriched the color terms in those languages, hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies may have led to richer “olfactory lexicons” in others—such as the 15 abstract terms for different smells documented for the Chapalaa language of Ecuador.


Fascinating as they may be for linguists and cognitive scientists, languages such as Aymara, Berinmo, and Chapalaa are not just bundles of exotic features waiting to be displayed in some future museum of the world’s languages, or at least in one of the new digital archives where linguists are depositing recordings of them.

Like all languages, they are to varying degrees emblems and embodiments of group belonging, in which every feature, however arbitrary, may be laden with political meaning. Yet in their particular circumstances, these languages face different challenges: the pressures on Berinmo, which has a few hundred speakers in two villages, will not be the same as those on Chapalaa, which has several thousand speakers in a rainforest territory, or Aymara, which has around three million speakers spread across multiple countries.

A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot—“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”—in the famous Yiddish phrase uttered in the 1940s by an unknown Bronx high school teacher to the linguist Max Weinreich. More than the linguistic criterion of mutual intelligibility, this sly witticism puts its finger on how some “language varieties” (to use a more neutral term preferred by linguists over “language” or “dialect”) are elevated and developed above others. According to Weinreich, the teacher had never heard that his own mother tongue had a history and “could be used for higher matters” beyond just the basics of everyday life and oral communication.

Now more than ever, global inequalities are producing linguistic ones. Speakers of endangered languages are ever more marginalized as their lands are taken or made uninhabitable by climate change; they enter both cities and the cash economy at the bottom of the hierarchy. The few hundred languages that enjoy official status and some form of governmental support are pulling away from all the others with the spread of mass literacy, standardization, formal education, mass media, and new technologies.

One study found that less than five percent of all languages are “ascending” into the digital realm, flourishing online and in a range of new technologies. As for the other 95 percent of human languages, although every bit as sophisticated on a grammatical and cognitive level, they may have to be supported if they are going to survive. To assert that a language has not just a history but also a future requires, in most cases, the mobilizing of people, resources, and social pressure: a language movement.

    The groundbreaking movements of the twentieth century have shown that any language can be made modern.

The groundbreaking language movements of the twentieth century have shown that any language can be made modern, even as dominant languages extend their sway over the world—and even in the absence of an army and a navy. A few generations ago, it seemed that the Welsh language was locked in inevitable decline with fewer and fewer young people able to speak it. But thanks to the work of activists—and the eventual support of local, national, and even continental governments such as the European Union—the language has been revived to the point that even in the heartland of English, it has a stable population of speakers and is thriving.

The twentieth-century language movements of the Basques and Catalans benefited from the economic wealth and autonomy of those regions of Spain. Advocates of Maori in New Zealand and of Hawaiian have emphasized the importance of inculcating these languages in early childhood development and education as part of their successful revival.

The extraordinary efforts of many Native American revitalization programs are demonstrating that even smaller groups may be able to carve out a place for languages that have been “asleep,” as linguists describe languages with no fluent speakers, for a century or more.

The political theorist Will Kymlicka has written that “national minorities should have the same tools of nation-building available to them as the majority nation,” and perhaps many countries will see fit to offer linguistic and cultural autonomy to minorities as long as ultimate authority remains in the capital. But how far can that process go?

The linguist Gerald Roche points out that language movements “often take nationalist form, reproducing the logic of one people, one language, one territory, endeavoring to capture or create state power for their nation, and oppressing the languages of second-order minorities in the process.”

An example Roche points to is the Tibetan independence struggle, which has given rise to a “pure father-tongue movement” that tends to focus on Standard Tibetan and ignore Tibet’s many other languages and dialects.

Language movements are nothing new, but they have formed an integral part of most of the political movements that lie behind nearly every contemporary nation-state. What is distinctive today is a world order in which few new nation-states can emerge but in which language movements are rising everywhere in response to the pressures of endangerment, through the force of imitation and often under the banner of indigenous rights.

Many governments are responding to these demands at least with symbolic gestures—enshrining languages in constitutions including those of Alaska and Algeria, for example, while spending little on resources for them—but the demands are likely to keep growing.

Not every group will resist the passing of its language. Nor will every language movement inevitably turn political and spur secession, ethnic conflict, and civil war. But from Cameroon to Catalonia, as from Hong Kong to Ukraine, language politics are gaining currency more than ever before.

With decolonization, creole languages from Port Moresby to Port-au-Prince are climbing out of the shadows. In Jamaica, the political push to exit the British Commonwealth has accompanied a linguistic push to elevate Patwa, long stigmatized as a “broken” form of English.

Nor are new language movements only about these fairly large, quasi-national languages often with hundreds of thousands of speakers. Hundreds of much smaller groups are collaborating with linguists, harnessing new technologies, and drawing inspiration from the pioneering twentieth-century movements. It is the dialects with neither armies nor navies that need support most of all.

ROSS PERLIN is Co-Director of the Endangered Language Alliance and teaches linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York.

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