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Extinct language

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Eteocypriot writing, Amathous, Cyprus, 500–300 BC, Ashmolean Museum

An extinct language is a language with no living descendants that no longer has any first-language or second-language speakers.[1][2] In contrast, a dead language is a language that no longer has any first-language speakers, but does have second-language speakers or is used fluently in written form, such as Latin.[3] A dormant language is a dead language that still serves as a symbol of ethnic identity to an ethnic group; these languages are often undergoing a process of revitalisation.[4] Languages that have first-language speakers are known as modern or living languages to contrast them with dead languages, especially in educational contexts.

In the modern period, languages have typically become extinct as a result of the process of cultural assimilation leading to language shift, and the gradual abandonment of a native language in favor of a foreign lingua franca, largely those of European countries.[5][6][7]

As of the 2000s, a total of roughly 7,000 natively spoken languages existed worldwide. Most of these are minor languages in danger of extinction; one estimate published in 2004 expected that some 90% of the currently spoken languages will have become extinct by 2050.[8]

Language death[edit]

Sisters Maxine Wildcat Barnett (1925–2021) (left) and Josephine Wildcat Bigler (1921–2016);[9] two of the last elderly speakers of Yuchi, visiting their grandmother's grave in a cemetery behind Pickett Chapel in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. According to the sisters, their grandmother had insisted that Yuchi be their native language.

Normally the transition from a spoken to an extinct language occurs when a language undergoes language death by being directly replaced by a different one. For example, many Native American languages were replaced by English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, or Dutch as a result of European colonization of the Americas.[citation needed]

In contrast to an extinct language, which no longer has any speakers, or any written use, a historical language may remain in use as a literary or liturgical language long after it ceases to be spoken natively. Such languages are sometimes also referred to as "dead languages", but more typically as classical languages. The most prominent Western example of such a language is Latin, and comparable cases are found throughout world history due to the universal tendency to retain a historical stage of a language as the liturgical language.[citation needed]

In a view that prioritizes written representation over natural language acquisition and evolution, historical languages with living descendants that have undergone significant language change may be considered "extinct", especially in cases where they did not leave a corpus of literature or liturgy that remained in widespread use (see corpus language), as is the case with Old English or Old High German relative to their contemporary descendants, English and German.[citation needed]

Some degree of misunderstanding can result from designating languages such as Old English and Old High German as extinct, or Latin dead, while ignoring their evolution as a language or as many languages. This is expressed in the apparent paradox "Latin is a dead language, but Latin never died." A language such as Etruscan, for example, can be said to be both extinct and dead: inscriptions are ill understood even by the most knowledgeable scholars, and the language ceased to be used in any form long ago, so that there have been no speakers, native or non-native, for many centuries. In contrast, Old English, Old High German and Latin never ceased evolving as living languages, thus they did not become extinct as Etruscan did. Through time Latin underwent both common and divergent changes in phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon, and continues today as the native language of hundreds of millions of people, renamed as different Romance languages and dialects (French, Italian, Spanish, Corsican, Asturian, Ladin, etc.). Similarly, Old English and Old High German never died, but developed into various forms of modern English and German, as well as other related tongues still spoken (e.g. Scots from Old English and Yiddish from Old High German). With regard to the written language, skills in reading or writing Etruscan are all but non-existent, but trained people can understand and write Old English, Old High German, and Latin. Latin differs from the Germanic counterparts in that an approximation of its ancient form is still employed to some extent liturgically. This last observation illustrates that for Latin, Old English, or Old High German to be described accurately as dead or extinct, the language in question must be conceptualized as frozen in time at a particular state of its history. This is accomplished by periodizing English and German as Old; for Latin, an apt clarifying adjective is Classical, which also normally includes designation of high or formal register.[citation needed]

Bilingual LatinPunic inscription at the theatre in Leptis Magna in present-day Libya

Minor languages are endangered mostly due to economic and cultural globalization, cultural assimilation, and development. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant lingua francas of world commerce: English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and French.[10]

In their study of contact-induced language change, American linguists Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman (1991) stated that in situations of cultural pressure (where populations are forced to speak a dominant language), three linguistic outcomes may occur: first – and most commonly – a subordinate population may shift abruptly to the dominant language, leaving the native language to a sudden linguistic death. Second, the more gradual process of language death may occur over several generations. The third and most rare outcome is for the pressured group to maintain as much of its native language as possible, while borrowing elements of the dominant language's grammar (replacing all, or portions of, the grammar of the original language).[11] A now disappeared language may leave a substantial trace as a substrate in the language that replaces it. There have, however, also been cases where the language of higher prestige did not displace the native language but left a superstrate influence. The French language for example shows evidence both of a Celtic substrate and a Frankish superstrate.

Institutions such as the education system, as well as (often global) forms of media such as the Internet, television, and print media play a significant role in the process of language loss.[10] For example, when people migrate to a new country, their children attend school in the country, and the schools are likely to teach them in the majority language of the country rather than their parents' native language.[citation needed]

Language death can also be the explicit goal of government policy. For example, part of the "kill the Indian, save the man" policy of American Indian boarding schools and other measures was to prevent Native Americans from transmitting their native language to the next generation and to punish children who spoke the language of their culture of origin.[12][13][14] The French vergonha policy likewise had the aim of eradicating minority languages.[15]

Language revival[edit]

Language revival is the attempt to re-introduce an extinct language in everyday use by a new generation of native speakers. The optimistic neologism "sleeping beauty languages" has been used to express such a hope,[16] though scholars usually refer to such languages as dormant.

In practice, this has only happened on a large scale successfully once: the revival of the Hebrew language. Hebrew had survived for millennia since the Babylonian exile as a liturgical language, but not as a vernacular language. The revival of Hebrew has been largely successful due to extraordinarily favourable conditions, notably the creation of a nation state (modern Israel in 1948) in which it became the official language, as well as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's extreme dedication to the revival of the language, by creating new words for the modern terms Hebrew lacked.

Revival attempts for minor extinct languages with no status as a liturgical language typically have more modest results. The Cornish language revival has proven at least partially successful: after a century of effort there are 3,500 claimed native speakers, enough for UNESCO to change its classification from "extinct" to "critically endangered". A Livonian language revival movement to promote the use of the Livonian language has managed to train a few hundred people to have some knowledge of it.[17]

Recently extinct languages[edit]

This is a list of languages reported as having become extinct since 2010. For a more complete list, see Lists of extinct languages.

Date Language Language family Region Terminal speaker Notes
2 May 2023 Columbia-Moses language Salishan Washington (state), US Pauline Stensgar[18]
5 October 2022 Mednyj Aleut Mixed AleutRussian Commander Islands, Russia Gennady Yakovlev[19]
16 February 2022 Yahgan Isolated Magallanes, Chile Cristina Calderón[20]
25 September 2021 Wukchumni dialect of Tule-Kaweah Yokuts Yok-Utian (proposed) California, United States Marie Wilcox[21]
27 August 2021 Yuchi Isolated Tennessee (formerly), Oklahoma, United States Maxine Wildcat Barnett[22]
7 March 2021 Bering Aleut Eskimo-Aleut Kamchatka Krai, Russia Vera Timoshenko[23]
2 February 2021 Juma Kawahiva Rondônia, Brazil Aruka Juma[24]
2 December 2020 Tuscarora Iroquoian North Carolina, United States Kenneth Patterson[25]
4 April 2020 Aka-Cari Great Andamanese Andaman Islands, India Licho[26]
23 March 2019 Ngandi Arnhem Northern Territory, Australia C. W. Daniels[27][28]
4 January 2019 Tehuelche Chonan Patagonia, Argentina Dora Manchado[29][30]
9 December 2016 Mandan Siouan North Dakota, United States Edwin Benson[31]
30 August 2016 Wichita Caddoan Oklahoma, United States Doris McLemore[32]
29 July 2016 Gugu Thaypan Pama-Nyungan Queensland, Australia Tommy George[33]
11 February 2016 Nuchatlaht dialect of Nuu-chah-nulth Wakashan British Columbia, Canada Alban Michael[34]
4 January 2016 Whulshootseed Salishan Washington, United States Ellen Williams[35][36]
4 February 2014 Klallam Salishan Washington, United States Hazel Sampson[37][38][notes 1]
By 2014 Demushbo Panoan Amazon Basin, Brazil
5 June 2013 Livonian Uralic > Finnic Latvia Grizelda Kristiņa[39][notes 2] Under a process of revival.[40]
26 March 2013 Yurok Algic California, United States Archie Thompson[41] Under a process of revival.[42]
By 2013 Sabüm Mon–Khmer Perak, Malaysia 2013 extinction is based on ISO changing it from living to extinct in 2013
2 October 2012 Cromarty dialect of Scots Germanic Northern Scotland, United Kingdom Bobby Hogg[43]
11 July 2012 Upper Chinook Chinookan Oregon, United States Gladys Thompson[44]
10 March 2012 Holikachuk Na-Dene Alaska, United States Wilson "Tiny" Deacon[45]
c. 2012 Dhungaloo Pama-Nyungan Queensland, Australia Roy Hatfield[46]
c. 2012 Ngasa Nilo-Saharan Tanzania Most speakers have shifted to Chaga
by 2012 Mardijker Portuguese-based Creole Jakarta, Indonesia Oma Mimi Abrahams[47]
10 April 2011 Apiaká Tupian Mato Grosso, Brazil Pedrinho Kamassuri[48]
2011 Lower Arrernte Pama-Nyungan Northern Territory, Australia Brownie Doolan Perrurle[49]
by 2011 Anserma Chocoan Antioquia Department, Colombia
24 October 2010 Pazeh Austronesian Taiwan Pan Jin-yu[50]
20 August 2010 Cochin Indo-Portuguese Creole Portuguese-based Creole Southern India William Rozario[50]
26 January 2010 Aka-Bo Andamanese Andaman Islands, India Boa Sr.[51]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Last surviving native speaker; it is being taught as a second language on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
  2. ^ Last surviving native speaker; some children still learn it as a second language.


  1. ^ Lenore A. Grenoble, Lindsay J. Whaley, Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization, Cambridge University Press (2006) p.18
  2. ^ Foltz, Anouschka (10 December 2015). "How Languages Die". The New Republic. ISSN 0028-6583. Retrieved 17 January 2023.
  3. ^ Matthews, P. H. (1 January 2007), "dead language", The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780199202720.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-920272-0, retrieved 14 November 2021
  4. ^ "What is the difference between a dormant language and an extinct language?". www.ethnologue.com. 15 February 2013. Archived from the original on 2 January 2022. Retrieved 29 July 2023.
  5. ^ Byram, Michael; Hu, Adelheid (26 June 2013). Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. Routledge. ISBN 978-1136235535.
  6. ^ Walt, Christa Van der (1 May 2007). Living Through Languages: An African Tribute to René Dirven. AFRICAN SUN MeDIA. ISBN 9781920109707.
  7. ^ Hall, Christopher J.; Smith, Patrick H.; Wicaksono, Rachel (11 May 2015). Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners. Routledge. ISBN 978-1136836237.
  8. ^ "Study by language researcher, David Graddol". NBC News. 26 February 2004. Retrieved 22 March 2012. Ian on Friday, January 16, 2009 61 comments (16 January 2009). "Research by Southwest University for Nationalities College of Liberal Arts". Chinasmack.com. Retrieved 22 March 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link). Ethnologue records 7,358 living languages known,"Ethnologue". Ethnologue. Archived from the original on 5 October 2001. Retrieved 22 March 2012. but on 2015-05-20, Ethnologue reported only 7,102 known living languages; and on 2015-02-23, Ethnologue already reported only 7,097 known living languages.
  9. ^ "One of the Last Remaining Native Yuchi Speakers Passes". www.culturalsurvival.org. June 2016. Retrieved 13 December 2020.
  10. ^ a b Malone, Elizabeth (28 July 2008). "Language and Linguistics: Endangered Language". National Science Foundation. Archived from the original on 9 March 2010. Retrieved 23 October 2009.
  11. ^ Thomason, Sarah Grey & Kaufman, Terrence. Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics, University of California Press (1991) p. 100.
  12. ^ "The History of Native American Boarding Schools is Even More Complicated than a New Report Reveals". 17 May 2022.
  13. ^ Levitt, Zach; Parshina-Kottas, Yuliya; Romero, Simon; Wallace, Tim (30 August 2023). "'War Against the Children'". The New York Times.
  14. ^ "Legacy of Trauma: The Impact of American Indian Boarding Schools…". PBS.
  15. ^ "La Vergonha and the Future of Occitan Language | Performing Trobar".
  16. ^ See pp. 57 & 60 in Ghil'ad Zuckermann's A New Vision for "Israeli Hebrew": Theoretical and Practical Implications of Analysing Israel's Main Language as a Semi-Engineered Semito-European Hybrid Language, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 5: 57–71 (2006). Dr Anna Goldsworthy on the Barngarla language reclamation, The Monthly, September 2014
  17. ^ Ernštreits, Valts (14 December 2011). "Lībiešu valodas situācija". Livones.net (in Latvian). Archived from the original on 2 February 2014.
  18. ^ "Last Fluent Speaker of Nxamxcin Language Dies at 96". The Spokesman. Spokane, Washington.
  19. ^ "Last Native Speaker Of Aleut Language In Russia Dies". RadioFreeEurope. 5 October 2022.
  20. ^ S.A.P, El Mercurio (16 February 2022). "Fallece a los 93 años Cristina Calderón, la última hablante del idioma Yagán | Emol.com". Emol (in Spanish). Retrieved 16 February 2022.
  21. ^ Seelye, Katharine Q. (6 October 2021). "Marie Wilcox, Who Saved Her Native Language From Extinction, Dies at 87". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  22. ^ "'Race against time': Pandemic propels fight to save Native American languages". POLITICO. 13 April 2021. Retrieved 13 April 2021.
  23. ^ "Last Native Speaker Of Rare Dialect Dies In Russia". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 9 March 2021. Retrieved 18 March 2021.
  24. ^ International, Survival (10 March 2021). "Aruká Juma, Last Man of His Tribe, Is Dead". NY Times. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  25. ^ Anderson, Dale (11 December 2020). "Chief Kenneth Patterson, 93, leader in the Tuscarora Nation". The Buffalo News. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  26. ^ International, Survival (1 June 2020). "The last speaker of the Sare language has died". Medium. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  27. ^ "Preserving Indigenous languages". Monash Life. Monash University. 27 October 2019. Retrieved 12 August 2020.
  28. ^ "Cherry Wulumirr Daniels laid to rest". Yugul Mangi Development Aboriginal Corporation. 24 April 2019. Retrieved 12 August 2020.
  29. ^ Daigneault, Anna (6 November 2019). "Museums of the mind: Why we should preserve endangered languages". Global Voices. Retrieved 23 November 2019.
  30. ^ Domingo, Javier (30 January 2019). "La imborrable obra de Dora Manchado: ¿la última guardiana de la lengua tehuelche?". Infobae (in Spanish). Retrieved 23 November 2019.
  31. ^ Joe Skurzewski (10 December 2016). "Edwin Benson, last known fluent speaker of Mandan, passes away at 85". KFYR-TV. Archived from the original on 23 September 2023.
  32. ^ Daffron, Brian (6 October 2016). "Doris McLemore, Last Fluent Wichita Speaker, Walks On". Indian Country Media Network. Archived from the original on 4 August 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  33. ^ "A "Legend", Indigenous Australian Leader, Knowledge Holder Tommy George Passes On". Snowchange Cooperative. 29 July 2016. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  34. ^ Jack Knox (19 March 2016). "Jack Knox — A silenced tongue: the last Nuchatlaht speaker dies". Times Colonist. Archived from the original on 5 August 2021.
  35. ^ Lacitis, Erik (8 February 2005). "Last few Whulshootseed speakers spread the word". Seattle Times. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 15 September 2012.
  36. ^ Sweet Dorman, Lois (21 June 2005). "Lost in translation: a connection to the sacred". Seattle Times. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 15 September 2012.
  37. ^ Kaminsky, Jonathan (7 February 2014). "Last native speaker of Klallam language dies in Washington state". Reuters. Archived from the original on 19 July 2023.
  38. ^ "Last native Klallam speaker dies in Port Angeles". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 8 February 2014.
  39. ^ Charter, David. "Death of a language: last ever speaker of Livonian passes away aged 103". The Times.
  40. ^ Ernštreits, Valts (14 December 2011). "Lībiešu valodas situācija". Livones.net (in Latvian). Archived from the original on 2 February 2014.
  41. ^ Romney, Lee. (2013, February 6). Revival of nearly extinct Yurok language is a success story. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 7, 2013
  42. ^ "Revival of nearly extinct Yurok language is a success story". Los Angeles Times. 6 February 2013. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  43. ^ Obituary: Robert (Bobby) Hogg, engineer and last speaker of the Cromarty dialect The Scotsman. 15 October 2012.
  44. ^ Foden-Vencil, Kristian. "Last Fluent Speaker Of Oregon Tribal Language 'Kiksht' Dies". Oregon Public Broadcasting. Archived from the original on 10 October 2019. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  45. ^ "Alaska Native Language Loses Last Fluent Speaker - Indian Country Media Network". indiancountrymedianetwork.com. Archived from the original on 8 June 2017. Retrieved 23 May 2017.
  46. ^ "ISO 639-3 Registration Authority Request for New Language Code Element in ISO 639-3" (PDF). ISO 639-3. 23 January 2012. Retrieved 29 October 2023.
  47. ^ Dimas, Dimas. "PUNAHNYA BAHASA KREOL PORTUGIS". LIPI (in Indonesian). Archived from the original on 8 August 2020. Retrieved 10 May 2020.
  48. ^ "Falecimento - 12/10/2011". Projeto de Documentação de Línguas Indígenas. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
  49. ^ "Another language faces sunset in dead centre". The Australian. ||
  50. ^ a b "An Indian language recently went extinct. Why were we not told about it?". write2kill.in - Select writings of Subir Ghosh. Archived from the original on 18 February 2013.
  51. ^ "Ancient Indian language dies out". 4 February 2010 – via news.bbc.co.uk.


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External links[edit]