Three languages ​​disappear every month: how to explain it?

Three languages ​​disappear every month how to explain it


In 2015, only 9 speakers of Tosu, a Tibeto-Burman language from China, remained. No need to be an expert to guess it: this language will therefore soon have disappeared and, with it, a culture and a civilization. Unfortunately, she is not the only one. According to Unesco, at least 50% of the approximately 6,000 to 7,000 idioms identified in the world are likely to die out during the 21st century, at the frightening rate of three to four each month on average. However, contrary to popular belief, this movement cannot be explained solely by the migration of rural populations to the cities. And not at all by the supposed “linguistic qualities” of the “great international languages”. The causes of this decline are known today and are mostly due to human action. Here are the main ones.

Military and religious conquests. The Amerindians of Peru, Colombia or Argentina did not decide spontaneously to abandon the language of their ancestors for Spanish. They were the victims of the colonizers who imposed on them the language of their country of origin. And this is just one example, which has been reproduced elsewhere to the benefit of English, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian and a few others. Illustrating this sad truth from linguist Max Weinreich: “The difference between a language and a dialect is that the language has an army and a fleet. »

Demographic flooding. There is a more subtle method, but just as effective as the action of arms to impose one’s language. It suffices to favor the transfer, voluntary or not, of populations coming from outside. Americans in Hawaii; Chinese in Tibet; Indonesians in Timor-Leste; Italians in the Aosta Valley and in Sardinia; English in Scotland and Wales; without forgetting the people speaking only French in the Basque Country and in Brittany (non-exhaustive list)… In all cases, the result is the same: the speakers of the historical languages ​​find themselves little by little in the minority on their territory.

The absence of a state. “Any language whose users do not possess any political power […] where a recognized status is necessarily placed in a precarious situation”, underlines the linguist Jacques Leclerc in a remarkable number of Way of seeingspecial issue of Diplomatic world coordinated by Philippe Descamps (1). However, only a hundred of them benefit from the support of a State. The others are excluded from education, administration, political assemblies, etc. This explains their progressive marginalization, which therefore owes nothing to their supposed grammatical inferiority, but everything to their political minoritization. How long do we think that French would live in Quebec if it were absent from school, from the media and from public life, returned to the sole private sphere? asks the linguist Patrick Sauzet.

cultural dominance. From TV series to radio, newspapers, cinema and video games, culture plays a major role in the prestige and dissemination of languages. Deprived of access to these supports for creation, many peoples become dependent on the culture of the dominant group, which ends up persuading them of the inferiority of their own languages.

economic interest. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did not give up Limousin, Poitevin, Flemish or Franco-Provençal with great joy. If they have resolved to adopt French, it is because this language has been made more “profitable”. And for good reason: the Third Republic chose to make French the only language of school, and therefore of social advancement. From then on, the choice was biased: either the generations concerned switched to the national language, or their children were condemned to live in misery. Funny alternative! Jacques Leclerc cites the extreme but illustrative case of the Kamasse, a people of Siberia who have changed their language three times in fifty years, according to the successive conquests of which they have been the victim, passing from Kamassian to Turkish before switching to the Russian. The last speaker of Kamassian died in 1989.

Let’s complete. Barring exceptions, these changes never happen suddenly. The disappearance of a language begins with a slow decline. It continues with a more or less long phase of bilingualism. It ends with its pure and simple abandonment, first by the elites – the first to speak the language of the powerful in order to rise socially – before the people, weary of war, end up following the same path. According to historians, the Gaulish did not die out definitively until the 5th century AD, that is to say five hundred years after the arrival of Julius Caesar.

Let’s complete again. This phenomenon is currently experiencing a marked acceleration. “The number of known languages ​​that have died out over the course of history is estimated at 900. But, of these 900, nearly a quarter of them have disappeared over the past fifty years”, specifies the linguist Evangelia Adamou (2). Our planet is therefore facing an unprecedented linguistic impoverishment, comparable to the threats that weigh on the ecology of the planet. Except that no COP on cultural diversity is planned…


(1) Identities, domination, resistance: the power of languages. Le Monde diplomatique, collection “Manière de voir”, December 2022-January 2023.

(1) Half of the world’s languages ​​are threatened with extinction. The echoesFebruary 11, 2021


Elom 20ce: “I was forced to learn French in a climate of terror”

“The schoolmaster hit us for mistakes made in a language that was not ours. Speaking my mother tongue at school was prohibited”, recalls this 40-year-old Togolese rapper who denounces a form of French schizophrenia: “By colonizing us, France sold us its civilization as an ideal to achieve. But it did it by demeaning our African cultures. “, he underlines in this testimony published by The world.

Nigeria replaces English with 625 local languages ​​in education

Nigeria intends to promote local languages ​​in primary education, to the detriment of English, the only language to have official language status today. According to the government, students “learn much better” when they receive education in their mother tongue. In a country where 625 local languages ​​coexist, however, the reform is encountering much resistance.

We would have found the original language of the Indo-Europeans

The recent discoveries of genetics confirm the hypothesis: there would have existed, in the 4th millennium BC, a people at the origin of all the so-called Indo-European languages, underlines this article. of Herodotus. This people, living in the south-east of Russia, would have migrated thereafter towards Europe on the one hand, India on the other hand.

The British press is surprised by the Anglomania of French companies

“But why are these devilish French people killing the language of Molière? », wonders The Economist. The British weekly notes that the bosses of French companies, when looking for the name of their brand, seem to be ashamed of their own language and often opt for Franglais. “This nation built around a common language – which it defends tooth and nail – is raising the art of linguistic mutilation to new heights”, can we read in this article included in International mail.

Break Vocabulary: Pause English

Say “rotation” and no spin and prefer “pause” to freeze… During the Paris Olympics in 2024, the station wagon will be awarded its first Olympic titles. In view of this event, the Commission for the enrichment of the French language is proposing a list of terms to describe and comment on these tests, avoiding anglicisms.

Words with surprising originsby Sylvie Brunet

“Comrade” comes from the Spanish classmate, the room. “Shrimp” has the same origin as “chevrette”, because of the leaps that the two animals perform to move. “Amazed” literally means “struck by thunder” and used to mean “thunder”. Here are some of the surprising etymologies gathered by Sylvie Brunet in this work which is pleasant to read (despite the pagination errors from which the index suffers).

Words with surprising origins, by Sylvie Brunet. First Editions.

Regional languages: sign and have this petition signed

It is time to study at school, in French or bilingual version, the literature written in other languages ​​of France, such as Breton, Alsatian, Creole, Corsican and all the others. The approach is common for foreign authors like Shakespeare and Kafka. Why wouldn’t she be adopted for Frédéric Mistral, Raphaël Confiant or Pierre Jakez-Hélias?


The Governor General of Canada is not a “unilingual Anglophone”, as the English rug academy statement I quoted from last week stated. Mary Simon actually speaks Innuktitut and English. If she does not know French, one of the two official languages ​​of the Canadian confederation, she is indeed bilingual.

Conference in Sète: “How to save Occitan? »

This is the question I will try to answer at the Sète media library on Friday January 13 at 6 p.m. during a conference organized by the Ceùcle occitan setòri (Occitan Sète circle) as part of the setmana occitana (Occitan week). I will rely in particular on the ideas developed in my book Save regional languages (Editions Heliopoles).


Basque language: what changes the discovery of the hand of Irulegui

It was thought that the Vascons, ancestors of the Basques, were illiterate and that the first writing in Euskara dated from the 16th century. The discovery of the hand of Irulegui, which dates from the 1st century BC and on which there is a text written with a non-Latin alphabet, seems to indicate the contrary. However, we must beware of too hasty conclusions, as this video from France Culture explains.

React, debate and find more information on the languages ​​of France by joining me on THE FACEBOOK PAGE DEDICATED TO THIS NEWSLETTER