What Causes A Language To Die?

The death of a language is a loss to the world. But more important than mourning is understanding how and why these languages are lost.
The cover of A Death in the Rainforest by Don Kulick

It’s estimated that every two weeks, a language dies. This is an oft-repeated, urgent statistic. But language death, unlike the death of humans, is not easy to wrap your head around. Most people in the world never interact with someone who speaks an endangered language; 96 percent of people in the world speak the 100 largest of the over 7,000 languages in existence today. Much linguistics work today is simply trying to record these languages before they vanish. If a language dies in the forest and no one is there to record it, what does it matter to the world?

Don Kulick, a linguist who has written about language death before, decided to write for people who aren’t necessarily linguists. The result is A Death in the Rainforest, which tells the story of Gapun, a single village in Papua New Guinea. Kulick traveled there several times over the course of decades to study the endangered language Tayap. The book is about the language, and it’s also about the forces that are reshaping even the remotest parts of the human world.

How Does A Language Die?

Don Kulick first traveled to Papua New Guinea in 1986 as a doctoral student. He went there to answer the question, “How does a language die?” Papua New Guinea is a prime place to be to find out. In a country that isn’t very large, there are nearly 1,000 languages spoken.

Kulick went to Gapun specifically because it’s almost ideal for observing language death. The community is relatively small, and the local language of Tayap is spoken far more by the elders than the children of the village. Tayap is slowly being edged out by Tok Pisin, which is one of the official languages of the country (along with English). In the decades spanning Kulick’s visits, the number of Tayap speakers dropped from 90 to 45 in a population of fewer than 200 people.

Many chapters in A Death in the Rainforest look at the day-to-day linguistic work that goes into studying a dying language. Kulick meets with Tayap speakers to attempt to document the language before it vanishes. This means learning an entirely new language and creating a writing system to express it. This task is only made trickier when villagers disagree about what a certain word is in Tayap; trying to figure out the Tayap word for “rainbow” sends Kulick on a wild goose chase.

Then, Kulick has to investigate why the language is dying. There are a range of reasons, but it essentially boils down to the fact that children are not being taught the language as much anymore. Stretch that process over a few generations, and just about any language subjected to it will die out.

The result of this is Kulick’s first work, Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self, and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinean Village. It’s the kind of name that would scare off anyone but an academic, and it doesn’t place much emphasis on the personal impact language death has on its speakers. This isn’t Kulick’s own flaw, because he’s just mimicking an accepted version of linguistic research.

But in A Death in the Rainforest, Kulick seeks to redress the situation and allow the personalities of Gapun to stand out. He writes that “rather than ‘speak for’ the villagers I write about, this book ‘engages with’ them.” In a field that requires as much human contact as linguistics, this engagement is invaluable, and it’s too often skimmed over in favor of academic rigor in linguistics writing.

Why Does A Language Die?

The villagers in Gapun believe that no one dies a natural death. Instead, each death is an evil act done by sorcerers in nearby villages. Then, the bodies crack open and the people travel underground to Europe, transforming into that villager’s true form: a white person. All this is to say that when Don Kulick arrived in Gapun, they thought he was a deceased villager who had returned to lead the community into the future.

Gapun is very difficult to get to, but Kulick was not the first white person they’d seen. Christian missionaries, explorers and NGO members had passed through before, and some villagers even went to (not very well-run) schools that exposed them to what the world is like outside of their home. And this is enough to have created a situation in which the people of Gapun are sick of their current situation, and want to enter a world with cars and technology that make their lives easier. Tok Pisin is useful because it goes beyond the boundaries of the village.

A Death in the Rainforest covers a range of topics, but it’s hard to avoid the veneration of white culture and how it has infiltrated this community. Even the more fun chapters carry on this theme: Kulick’s analysis of the love letters sent by young men in Gapun shows that they venerate English, even if they don’t understand a word of it.

You can sense Kulick wants to give the reader a look into the humanity of Gapun. Despite some missteps — a chapter that strongly exoticizes the cuisine of Gapun feels out of place, for example — Kulick does his best to acknowledge what it means for him to live in this community.

Kulick is a white man who can come and go as he pleases, and while he does do his best to give back to the community, he is clearly gaining a personal advantage by studying Tayap. And on some occasions, his presence even puts people in the community in danger as stories about the rich white visitor spread through the area. This research, then, was morally ambiguous at best, and that’s why by the end of his last visit in 2010, he decides to never return. Not because he doesn’t care about the villages, but because he knows his impact on the village is ultimately harmful.

Why Should We Care?

Toward the end of this book, Kulick writes, “Linguists who write books about language death usually include a chapter that asks some version of the question: ‘Why should we care?’” He then rattles off the usual answers about cultural value and historical importance, but points out that those are grand, theoretical answers that don’t address the more dire problems. Languages are dying not because of some unstoppable entropy — it’s the long-lasting effects of colonialism that still ripple today. The people of Gapun had been converted to Christianity, conned by corrupt politicians and hurt by NGOs that never stayed for long enough to help out much. With the death of Tayap comes the death of a way of life, as villagers have tried to follow the examples of others only to have the rug pulled out from under them. 

A Death in the Rainforest is a microcosm, but that’s largely the point. The situation in Gapun is not the same as the thousands of other endangered languages that are being lost. But where many analyses of language death merely shake their heads over the sadness of it all, this one feels more vital. Perhaps the Gapun belief about death refers more aptly to languages. They do not die of natural causes, but instead are stifled by outside forces. The only difference is that when a language passes away, it doesn’t come back.

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