Is The Internet Killing Most Languages?

On Vice's Motherboard, contributing editor Ben Richmond writes that we are living through a mass extinction of the linguistic variety.

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Richmond references András Kornai, the author of Digital Language Death, a paper which details the rapid decline of many of the world's languages. Kornai predicts that "fewer than five percent of the 7,000 languages spoken today will ascend to the digital realm," essentially sending them to their graves.

Kornai claims that only a few hundred languages can be fully established on the Internet, and that this will lead to the demise of those languages that don't transition online. Kornai's claims are certainly supported by evidence in online communities such as Reddit, where millions of Redditors from around the world converse, predominately in English.

Extinct languages

When younger generations stop speaking and using a language, it dies for all practical purposes, even if it is preserved by linguists. It is not difficult to imagine how the internet could expedite the abandonment of an already declining language. As Kornai notes, "the signs of imminent death for a language are a loss of function, a loss of prestige, and a loss of competence." More and more young people around the world are gaining high speed internet access, and with it, becoming aware of a connected world that operates in a handful of major languages. Popular culture, commerce and general knowledge is rarely displayed or discussed online in the thousands of isolated or declining languages. It is natural to assume then, that the youth will gravitate toward the dominant languages of online content, for fear of being left behind by the rest of the wired world.

Kornai laments the fact that as the world loses language diversity, it also experiences a consolidation of world views. He sees this as part of a larger trend of "urban agriculturalists moving on to a different, digital plane of existence, leaving the hunter-gatherers and nomad pastoralists behind." With 96% of the world's languages spoken by only 4% of the population, and many of those lacking any writing system, it is unlikely that this trend will slow or reverse.

You can read Kornai's entire study here.

This article referenced above can be found on Ben Richmond's Vice author page, along with his other work.