Going Extinct: How the Internet is Eliminating Languages

Going Extinct: How the Internet is Eliminating Languages

Although there is a push to digitize everything and get as much written material as possible onto the internet where anyone can access it, a recent study indicates that the internet may turn out to be the death of many of the world’s languages. “The pace at which languages are disappearing today has no precedent and is alarming,” reports a statement from the Endangered Languages Project. According to some linguists, the internet is to blame.

Language extinction is nothing new. Even as new languages are created, others are going extinct. Languages disappear when their speakers shift to using a different language for communication. This can be caused by internal and external factors including military, economic, religious or cultural influences. Some languages even become extinct due to a community’s own negativity toward their language or a shared desire to change their way of speaking.

The process of language extinction is normal. However, the rate at which languages are disappearing is increasing. The recently published study by András Kornai cites only 250 language as being “well-established” on the internet, with only 140 others being “borderline.” Kornai estimates that “of the 7,000 languages still alive, perhaps 2,500 will survive,” for the simple reason that it is easier to communicate and conduct business online in an already-established language than to introduce new languages to the Internet.

Kornai cites Wikipedia as being one of the primary indicators of which languages will survive the internet. Users can use Wikipedia to create a collection of knowledge in their own language online. However, many of the world’s languages do not have a Wikipedia presence—and although that doesn’t mean they won’t survive, it means that many of their speakers are using other languages when they use the internet. In addition, many languages do not have a written form, which, Kornai claims, almost guarantees their eventual extinction.

However, although the internet is contributing to the disappearance of many languages, it is also providing opportunities for storing and maintaining a record of materials in many different languages—so although they may disappear from use, there will still be a record of their existence.

For more information, see Kornai’s paper as well as the full report online.

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