It’s not news that we’re currently in a period of mass linguistic extinction. One of the world’s languages falls out of use about every two weeks, and about half of those remaining are in danger of extinction this century. But Andras Kornai of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences believes these numbers actually understate what’s happening by failing to account for the fact that very few of the world’s languages are developing any presence online.*
While technically a language only “dies” when its last speaker does, this is usually preceded by a number of factors including falling out of use in commerce or politics, losing prestige in a particular population, or the loss of competence in the language among young people. Komai believes that a language’s failure to be used online—the paper uses the oddly religious-sounding term “digital ascension”—will accelerate all of these factors.
As one example, there are currently active Wikipedias for 287 languages , but proposals for almost twice that many. As Kornai writes, “The need for creating a wikipedia is quite keenly felt in all digitally ascending languages.” Most of these will never get off the ground as, beyond hobbyists and activists, there just isn’t enough interest to maintain a Wikipedia.
Some linguistic groups have clearly recognized the importance of a digital presence. Though Catalan is spoken by fewer than 10 million people, it has the world’s 15th-largest Wikipedia, with about 1,600 active editors. “Viquipedia” is viewed by advocates as a nationalist project to ensure their cultural survival.
Other languages have not fared as well online. Piedmontese, for instance, is still spoken by between 2 million and 3 million people in Northern Italy, but without any significant digital presence, its future could be dubious despite efforts by local authorities to preserve it.
All in all, Kornai’s survey on languages online estimates that at most 5 percent of the world’s 7,000 active languages will be capable of ascending. It’s fair to wonder just how much of a tragedy this really is: While we’re losing some local identity, more people around the world are now able to communicate with one another than ever before. It is safe to say, however, that we’re at something of a key turning point in the history of culture.
*Correction, Dec. 11, 2013: This post originally misspelled scientist Andras Kornai’s last name.