What Happens When a Language Dies and is Forgotten?

Languages die every year. But what is the exact process involved and why does this happen?
Trevor English

Languages define us, our cultures, and ultimately, they define how the world around us. Most of us probably consider the language we speak, a part of us — just as much as, say, our hair color, or our personality.

Now, step back for a second and imagine you were the last person on earth that spoke your language.

How would you go about making sure that it stayed alive? And if you couldn't, how would you feel about centuries worth of culture just dying off with you.


That may sound unimaginable to those of us who speak English or Spanish, or other widely spoken languages, but languages have come and gone throughout all of human history. In fact, it's estimated that currently more than half of the world's 6,900 languages are at risk of dying by the end of the 21st century.

The first question to ask is why.

Why Do Languages Die?

Occasionally, languages will die quickly when there is only a small community of speakers that are wiped out by war or natural disaster. These tend to be indigenous languages that are highly isolated to a geographic region.

In El Salvador, speakers of the Lenca and Cacapera language abandoned speaking them when Salvadoran troops killed thousands of indigenous people. However, while some languages do die suddenly, most die out slowly over the course of several generations.

It all starts as cultures start meshing and new generations start becoming bilingual, so they have they are able to speak with others. Eventually, their children or their children's children just stop speaking the uncommon ancient language and start speaking the more common one.

One great example of this is the disappearance of the Coptic language in 7th century Egypt. Arabic slowly started becoming more prominent, and since it was the language of commerce, there became little need or desire to speak another language. 

What Happens When a Language Dies and is Forgotten?
Source: 1970s/iStock

At least in the modern era, as languages die, most are documented and preserved by historians in order to document old cultures, traditions, and lives of the ancestors. 

In some cases, preservationists are also able to revive old languages; the most prominent modern example is Hebrew. By the 2nd century, it had died out as a common language, persisting only in religion and education.

Through the help of historians, now in the 20th and 21st centuries, it has become the first language of millions of people in the country of Israel.

What Happens When a Language Dies and is Forgotten?
Source: Volodymyr Zakharov/iStock

So then, if we understand why languages do die, what is the actual process of a language dying? After all, if we decipher how this happens, maybe we can help figure out early on how to preserve the dying languages, especially before they are forgotten and lost forever.

The Process of Languages Dying

When a language starts to die, we usually see these four things start to happen:

1. We lose a unique culture and perception of the world

Each language represents its own culture and the speaker's unique way of looking at the world. Even within this perception, there's the fact that every language has a unique way of representing our world through words as well. 

Each and every language can be viewed as a sort of key that can tap into a culture's history and background with ease. Understanding how a language played a unique role in history and its underlying importance is one of the first things we start to lose when a language starts dying. Once a language's inherent importance is gone, other aspects are let go as well.

2. We lose the memory of different histories

Following up on the loss of different perceptions of history, as languages die, we could also lose the understanding of the world around us as well. In many cases, we lose the minute details of stories and pasts — all due to how languages present information.

For example, in the Greenlandic language, there are multiple words that describe the simple action of wind, all describing different things. When that language dies, and that story is transcribed into new languages, those details are lost, and the story just becomes about 'simple' wind. 

While that may not sound that drastic, imagine that over an entire book of literature, short stories, and entire histories. As the original language is lost, those histories end up changing or being lost with it.

What Happens When a Language Dies and is Forgotten?
Source: 4X-image/iStock

3. We lose local resources

For most of human history, languages came and went, but the total number stayed about the same. When local languages died, the speakers learned a new language that still wasn't dominant elsewhere.

In the 21st century, we now only have about 100 languages that are culturally dominant around the world with the rest being spoken by few. 

The locals that do speak these languages, like tribes or village inhabitants, they often possess knowledge of the world around them that the rest of the world doesn't understand. This is knowledge of plants, where freshwater is, and perhaps ideas of how the world work. These natural and cultural resources, if not preserved or tediously translated into a new language, can be lost to time as languages die. In many aspects, it's this loss of resources that impacts the world the most, as a language dies.

4. People lose their language

While we've discussed losses of ideas and resources, perhaps the most drastic thing that happens when a language dies is what occurs to the original speakers. As languages die and fall out of practice, many find themselves unable to speak their first language anymore. In many cases, they can lose unique memories and lose touch with memories of lost loved ones.

In many cases, there's no resource to learn back the lost language either. Imagine if you moved to a Spanish speaking country, spoke that language all the time, and lost English. Now imagine that no one else knew English or could help you remember it. That loss is visceral, as languages often help define who we are.