September 8, 2023

Dying languages: Cultures are being eradicated in silence

Sophie Yu in Australia

Article link copied.

slide image

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563.

The place of language at the heart of the human experience is indisputable- yet the speed and ubiquity of the disappearance of some is hurting us all.

‘Epaphra, you are bald!’

‘Celadus the Thracian makes the girls moan!’

‘Phileros is a eunuch!’

As much as these lines of graffiti might sound like insults thrown around and scrawled upon walls by modern-day thugs and criminals, they’re actually taken word for word from the archaeological site of Pompeii.

Yes, they were written by the same Romans who lived 2,000 years ago, who quibbled around in togas and conquered half of Europe. There’s a massive collection of absolutely filthy Latin literature and graffiti out there – this is only a brief selection.

Turns out that they were just as mature as us. No matter how far you travel in time or space, it seems that humans don’t ever change.

Even though Latin may seem like a dead language, we’ve kept it alive in the sense that we can still use it to discover the beautiful, hilarious similarities and differences between their society and ours. Language, to me, is one of the most valuable aspects of the human condition, one that can be used to transcend barriers and bring people together.

When I think of the 7,168 languages spoken on Earth, it translates into 7,168 new worlds for us to explore. But if you took a step back, you’d realise that 40% of these languages have less than 1,000 speakers left.

Every two weeks, a language dies. By the next century, anywhere from 50% to 90% are expected to disappear, erasing half of all human knowledge. And unlike Latin, the language of an empire, most die in silence. As soon as they go, without thought or tears, they’re forgotten by the world, as if they were never there at all.

The problem of disappearing languages is one with an urgency that I can’t stress enough and is becoming increasingly desperate by the day.

In our globalised world, language is often reduced to a tool for basic communication, neglecting its human and cultural significance. Global warming and urbanisation are forcing linguistically diverse communities to migrate, assimilate, and abandon their ancestral tongues. Valuable traditions, and cultural identities, are diluted and lost through generations.

Perhaps the most shocking examples of linguistic erasure are those wrought by colonial oppression- such as that of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional owners of the land on which I write.

Thanks to colonisation and what has been described as ‘two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival,’ only 120 out of the original 250 Indigenous Australian language groups are estimated to remain, with most critically endangered.

For Indigenous Australians, language is not just a means of communication, but a vessel for the expression of their heritage.

This kind of loss is unimaginable for someone so innately, instinctively connected to their heritage as the words and stories used to describe it disappear, There is even an Aboriginal Australian proverb for this particular kind of suffering: ‘Those who lose dreaming are lost’.

Whilst it is far from an easy task, language revival is also more than possible with the right community support and effort.

For instance, the Kaurna language of the Adelaide plains, fallen asleep in the 1860s, was pieced together well enough by local elders and linguists that Kaurna Plains School was able to start teaching Kaurna there, in 1992. With their combined efforts, the Kaurna language has once again come alive, regularly used and taught throughout Kaurna Country.

And luckily, the advanced recording technology of our contemporary world has made language preservation even easier. Just one example is a website called Wikitongues– founded in 2014.

They have a mission to document every language in the world by working directly with their speakers, making it possible for people to learn about languages that we may never have even heard of before.

Grassroots initiatives such as these are crucial because they take the message from the people themselves- when you listen to a recording, you are hearing the voice of someone who is part of that culture.

Cultures are dying, but people are fighting back and fighting back strong.

So, we too need to contribute to these initiatives and thus enable the people of these cultures to save their languages.

Donate, volunteer, or maybe just spread the word. Awareness and wider recognition are perhaps the most important factors in obtaining more publicity and funding, thus increasing the impact of these initiatives.

Your efforts matter, even if they seem small- because simple, easy understanding leads to deep, widespread appreciation, and appreciation leads to preservation.

Written by:


Sophie Yu



Edited by:


Jinn Ong

Deputy editor-in-chief

Politics & Society Section Editor

Singapore | London, United Kingdom

Co-founder of Harbingers' Magazine


Create an account to continue reading

A free account will allow you to bookmark your favourite articles and submit an entry to the Harbinger Prize 2024.

You can also sign up for the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter.