Some languages die – get over it

DOES it matter if a language dies out? The orthodox answer is that it does, because every language is a repository of ideas and culture and embodies a unique way of looking at the world. The planet only has about 7000 languages; the extinction of even one diminishes the sum total of human knowledge.

But in some cases, extinction can be seen in a more positive light. Take Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), restricted to about 1000 users in a small Israeli village with a high level of congenital deafness. The language seems doomed by the spread of Israeli sign language (see “A language is born — and now it is dying“).

The instinctive reaction is regret, and from a linguistic perspective the loss of ABSL is a genuine shame. It is a fascinating language that has kept linguists busy since it came to their attention around 15 years ago.

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This article appeared in print under the headline “Unspoken assumptions”

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