What is lost when a language goes extinct?

Are some languages able to express certain ideas better than others? Are there concepts that exist in particular languages and nowhere else? As more and more languages become extinct, linguists are realizing that they contain a type of knowledge beyond simply a different set of words and grammar.

In the next fifty years, linguists believe that 3,500 languages will go extinct. As globalization has linked markets and communities, languages spoken in remote areas have been subsumed by more dominant ones such as Arabic, English, Spanish, or Mandarin. There are obvious benefits to this increasing linguistic homogeneity. For example, it allows residents of insular regions greater access to education and material wealth. But there are costs as well.

Tuvan is one of these threatened languages. Tuvan is spoken almost exclusively in the Republic of Tuva, a federal subject of Russia located in southern Siberia. Recent estimates project that there are currently 264,000 total Tuvan speakers. Tuvan has many more speakers than other more endangered languages like Seri in Mexico (1,000 estimated speakers), Neju in South Africa (fewer than ten speakers), or Chana in Argentina (only one speaker remaining). Even so, Tuvan is threatened by encroaching global dialects, like Russian and Mandarin.

The Tuvan word “khoj özeeri,” signifies a specific method of killing a sheep in Tuvan culture. To slaughter a sheep, Tuvans cut one of its central arteries with their fingers, allowing it to die a less painful death. Tuvans make sure they use the entire sheep: they harvest the hide, meat, and entrails, letting no part of the animal go to waste. “Khoj özeeri” encapsulates everything it took us three sentences to describe. It doesn’t just mean slaughter but also kindness and humaneness. Further, it implies that one’s treatment of animals is also a measure of one’s character. From this point of view, “khoj özeeri,” is untranslatable. Furthermore, it tells non-Tuvans something distinct and valuable about the Tuvan way of life — an understanding that could be lost, if the language continues to fall out of use.

(What are some of the hardest words to translate into English? Click here to find out.)

Fortunately, linguists and researchers are working hard to catalog the world’s most threatened languages. Google, for example, is backing the Endangered Languages Project, an online catalog of rare languages. But there is still much work to be done. According to leading field linguist David Harrison, over 85 percent of the world’s languages have yet to be documented. Put another way, a massive treasure trove of different ways to understand the world are unrecorded and could vanish.

Have you ever had a chance to learn a rare or threatened language? Has a language that was once spoken by your family fallen out of use? Let us know, below.


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  13. Kayla -  February 2, 2013 - 1:41 pm

    Everything seems to be endangered these days: plants, animals, and now languages….what’s next?

  14. Miriam -  November 21, 2012 - 2:25 pm

    In the middle eastern countries, there is a “private” dialect that consists in adding a “z” after each syllable, and sounding just like it; e.i. middle would become miziddleze – the same sound of “mi” would go to its following “zi” ..etc..
    this dialect was once used between elderly to communicate personal stories…
    Less people know about this dialect today, though, it is easy to be learnt…
    they used to call it Asfori, as in reference to the sound of birds (asfor in arabic), and its resemblance to the consistent Z sound.
    As for other dialects, each region (or county) has its own dialect, and a simple accent may change the meaning of a word, the city inhabitants do find it a bit difficult to communicate with people in villages… and to avoid misunderstanding, the city dialect is usually the most common.

  15. Mariah -  September 26, 2012 - 7:17 pm

    Latin is great! I am taking it in high school and I absolutely love it! It is very challenging but it helps you so much with dissecting words and finding out what they mean! Latin for the win!(:

  16. 7kud -  September 25, 2012 - 11:15 pm

    Well, my objective is too learn Polish, I so badly want to speak fluent Polish. I know I will one day. But now reading this…I also would like to learn a dying language. As a sentiment of treasures in cultures that people take for granted. Also as a testament to help preserve dying languages/cultures. Dying because of ignorance.

    Thank you for providing this article, thank you so much!

  17. Ninjay -  September 20, 2012 - 1:25 am

    On the deal with Cyberquill, I’m calling the original comment and replies further proof of Poe’s law.

  18. HAPPY -  September 19, 2012 - 11:54 pm


  19. Camille -  September 19, 2012 - 7:26 pm

    Poor person that speaks Chana. They can only talk to themselves. D:

    I’m mostly concerned with the culture and the words that die with the language that is lost. I hope they can be documented before they are gone and maybe linguists can learn them just to keep them alive.

  20. girl -  September 9, 2012 - 6:44 pm

    I’m a little disturbed that no one has pointed out that Italian is not a combination of Spanish and Latin. Italian and Spanish are both Romance languages derived from Latin.

  21. XWNNE -  September 6, 2012 - 1:43 pm

    I think it is important to preserve the dying languages. You don’t necessarily need to have people speaking it- it could be recorded for historical purposes or even for future study. I personally think preserving the memory of such a language is more important than doggedly forcing it to stay alive, especially if it no longer serves any practical purpose for communication. Yes, in a language is the culture itself; but you can’t force-feed a younger generation a language they might never find good use for. Resistance to learning only backfires on the learning process itself- take Chinese education in Singapore for an example.
    I love languages, by the way, I’m learning (I won’t say I know them, because I’m always in the process of learning) four languages at this point in time. The dialects I know add a shade of endearment to my appreciation of my own heritage but rarely serve practical purpose (unless when pertaining to my grandmother’s generation).

  22. XWNNE -  September 6, 2012 - 1:39 pm

    I’m what one would refer to as an overseas Chinese, but though my mother tongue is technically Chinese, my first language is English. Obviously, though, I’m no native speaker. In addition, I know Malay because I am Malaysian. I wonder what linguists classify people like me under, since in our case our mother tongue does not equate to our first language.
    Also, what a random comment! Thank you for reading it.

  23. cazk -  September 6, 2012 - 7:23 am

    The attention shall be paid on practical and not ornate use. The only sad part about losing any language would be not to lose the language itself but the KNOWLEDGE that we risk loosing. But then as the above comments say, it is not as probable as is believed.

    So, indeed we will certainly be able to reatin the knowledge of least painful death of the sheep even if lose the word. We may lose the prose but perspective will be there.

    And it is not really a one way simple thing. Some languages are vanashing but not without leaving an impact on the mainstream languages.

    Someday, hypothetically, English may overtake Russian vanishing it all together but not with Russan leaving a deep impact on English by way of the new English words invented and the Russian words adopted in English, thereby improving or rather diversifying the Enlgish itself, and which is rather good.

    So, there is no need to panic, but yes it is a wise nobel move to maintain arichives of as much knowledge/history/languages as we can.

    Thankyou Google.

  24. wayne -  August 16, 2012 - 5:08 am

    i once saw a special on television or perhaps in USA Today about the dialects/languages right here in the united states. there was a wonderful map. I wish i could remember the source. any ideas?

  25. Eda -  August 15, 2012 - 11:53 pm

    Taiwanese might be one of the threatened languages, although there are still about a several millions speakers.

  26. MC in TX -  August 15, 2012 - 2:37 pm

    In my younger days I learned a little Quechua from my father as well as some Cusquenian Spanish. The latter is not recognized as a language per se but it is definitely dying fast which is a shame. Quechua still has a lot of speakers but, whereas it once was a bit of a lingua franca in many areas it is now firmly established as a language of the very backward and the dirt poor. Unless that changes culturally (which seems unlikely) it means that as people are lifted out of poverty the language will die.

  27. Verde -  August 15, 2012 - 7:36 am

    Not me, but a friend of mine was involved in a project of bringing internet into the Kaingang community here in Brazil. He, who runs an Drupal powered websites company and also studied Linguistics, was working along with a professor to keep documented the language, which is nowhere near known by most of the population.

  28. Ole TBoy -  August 15, 2012 - 6:54 am

    Hey TETO,

    Old vaudeville comics used to “cuss” by saying “cheese and crackers.” W. C. Fields uttered the immortal “Godfrey Daniels!” for the same “cussing” effect in his films.

    Isn’t language a delight!?

  29. Param -  August 15, 2012 - 12:03 am


  30. feroz khan -  August 14, 2012 - 2:18 pm

    the most gracious
    he taught the quran
    he created man
    he taught man speech(languages)

  31. Somebody -  August 14, 2012 - 1:17 pm

    I highly suspect this was taken from a National Geographic magazine.

  32. Sophie -  August 14, 2012 - 11:05 am

    I’m afraid I am only fluent in English. I am studying German in university, and I used to be very conversant in French until I quit it after the tenth grade. But I DO know some Yiddish, and I plan on studying Yiddish when I have the time. I have one native Yiddish speaker in my family.

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  34. Emily -  August 14, 2012 - 7:25 am

    The Spring Issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is largely about this issue, if anyone wants further reading. The article by George Steiner on pp. 119-121 is especially interesting.

  35. Linda -  August 14, 2012 - 5:57 am

    I would also think it equally important to know how the values behind the words were translated and impressed on to the subsequent generations. At times it seems as though we have forgotten to how to teach the children any values as a society.

  36. Sam -  August 14, 2012 - 5:38 am

    There are so many words in my own language that are effectively extinct because despite my best efforts they have gone unlearned. It is difficult to mourn the passing of a dialect or language that I have scarcely heard of.
    Khoj ozeeri has a lovely conciseness and poetic meaning it seems but the idea behind that meaning doesn’t die with the word describing it. I think it is an easy mistake to make; that of believing we understand something because we have assigned it a word. As Tuvan’s culture and language pass into oblivian it does not mean the end of humane, slaughter of sheep. Regardless of what the next generation calls it or what language they discuss it in, people will still find compassion for animals and take care to avoid causing suffering while slaughtering them. It ‘s part of our archetype, the coding that comes with being human. As different as we are culturally and language-wise we are fundamentally the same. Nothing is lost that won’t resurface and be expressed in a different tongue with a different twist.

  37. Stan -  August 14, 2012 - 5:03 am

    Even the loss of a dialect is still a considerable loss and similarly some concepts are better expressed by dialect words – but really only to other speakers of that dialect. Very few people will understand the ramifications implied by khoj ozeeri (except readers of this column)
    As I grew up, I realised that in order for foreigners to understand me, I had to speak more clearly and avoid (in my case) Scots words. You know the old story of the elderly Scot explaining that the Scots tongue does not have a word that displays the same sense of urgency contained in the Spanish word ‘manana’.
    However, I very much regret the diminution of how we all spoke when I was a child and I gladly revert to it given a fellow speaker to chat with.

  38. ektagupta -  August 14, 2012 - 1:50 am

    The only way to keep a language alive is to let it’s speakers talk and reinvent especially around their young ones

  39. Naidan -  August 13, 2012 - 7:17 pm

    Umm, Mongolians have been killing sheep that same way forever. They don’t call it khoj özeeri, they call it хонь гаргах. Just because they have a weird word we don’t have in English doesn’t mean it’s unique to that lanugage.

  40. Robert -  August 13, 2012 - 3:33 pm

    Words may go extinct without the language going extinct. Words may gain a new meaning over time so that their former meaning goes extinct. Languages may be considered extinct (or perhaps defunct) while certain words of it remain. Dictionary.reference.com is a good place to see instances of all of these situations.

    If everybody forgets Tuvan, will they still perform khoj özeeri? If they still perform khoj özeeri, will they still call it khoj özeeri even though nobody speaks any other part of the language? Regardless, khoj özeeri is evidently the proper name of a process. Proper names are rarely translatable, though there is typically some acceptance of a name in other languages (e.g. Robert, Roberto [both from the same Latin roots]).

    As for referring to a process with a name, we do the same thing in our culture. Some examples might be Missile Defense, Earned Value Management, or Oil Refining. Each of these represents a detailed process. One of these represents a process through which very nearly every single molecule is captured and relinked to produce a wide range of very important products. If you haven’t guessed, that would be Oil Refining.

    All in all, the only thing lost when a language goes extinct is the useless parts which only serve to cause more misunderstanding in the world. The useful parts tend to endure, usually becoming incorporated into other languages.

  41. TETO -  August 13, 2012 - 3:15 pm

    donna mentioned “bad” words…… My father-in-law taught himself Spanish. When children were little he taught them to “cuss”—- with emphasis say, “cheese es caso”! They felt so proud and grown up for a long time.

  42. Eflanno -  August 13, 2012 - 3:12 pm

    I have learned some words of Irish-Gaelic. As my name is actually in Irish, it gives me an easy way to outreach nearly every day. As with many other languages of subjugated peoples, Irish-Gaelic was forbidden for many years. In response, many people were taught the language (dance, and culture) in ‘hedge schools’. Behind tall hedges so soldiers couldn’t see from the road.

    Part of learning my history has been learning about these hedge schools, and similar situations in other cultures. It has taught me about the resourcefulness and determination of my people and instilled a sense of pride which will always cling to the small amount of Irish-Gaelic that I will always know.

  43. rachel -  August 13, 2012 - 3:00 pm

    it is so awesome to read this

  44. John -  August 13, 2012 - 2:24 pm

    Words are what make communications possible between different peoples. There are so many facets of communications that are being lost it seems is anything being done to save these languges on CD or some other type of historical preserve?

  45. Mohammed -  August 13, 2012 - 1:12 pm

    I do love this website it is very useful to non- native speakers.

  46. Gene -  August 13, 2012 - 12:24 pm

    I’m learning Cherokee, in part to keep it alive.

  47. fabgirl -  August 13, 2012 - 12:18 pm

    I believe languages should be preserved, but I also think it is important for speakers of endangered or rare languages to learn more global dialects.

  48. lawrence -  August 13, 2012 - 11:16 am

    I don’t see any thing in languages as this tuvan that can not be expressed by widely spoken languages like english or spanish with the same or more precision. And I don’t think there is much lost when such languages become extinct. After all, what is the advantage of speaking or learning how to speak a tongue understood only by half a dozen peaple? The world would be an easier place without so many different languages.

  49. Olivia -  August 13, 2012 - 10:17 am

    i read about Tuvan and other endangered languages in Nat. Geo. its really cool to see the differences in languages. obviously, different cultures needed different terms.
    i agree that its super important to preserve languages. each one is a huge treasure chest of human creativity. if u lose a language, you lose most of a culture. which is pretty much not good


  50. Nshera -  August 13, 2012 - 9:35 am

    One of my favorite languages that I speak is Twi, the language of Ashanti’s. I hope it NEVER goes extinct!!!!!!!!!!! :-(

  51. Ole TBoy -  August 13, 2012 - 8:43 am

    Hey, Cyberquill,

    I know the Tower of Babel reference concerning God confounding human speech. Is there a source for the idea that God has made a new decision and now is about the business of eliminating many of those “confounded” languages? Or, did you just make that story up the same way Biblical poets made up the Tower of Babel story?

  52. Bubba -  August 13, 2012 - 8:36 am

    @ Cyberquill. Who? I don’t recall Shiva or Odin or Zeus doing anything like that. (Musta been someone elses myth). Different languages seem to invoke different processes of thought/ ways of seeing the world (life). It’s not just a language that is lost, but a culture as well.

  53. Ann lee -  August 13, 2012 - 8:35 am

    I see no practical reason for saving endangered languages, however it is a nice thing to do. I suppose learning a root language like Latin or Greek could be valuable, if you speak English.

  54. S.Swaroop -  August 13, 2012 - 6:24 am

    Many languages perfected by the natives of a particular land/country or countries or the regions of old civilizations go in to a rigid- grammer of their times, for the perfection, and found difficult for everyday use, by the next generation; slowly they loose spoken-language -status and left for the scholers only. So it goes extinct with growth of population and only carry a’CLASSIC’ respect such as ‘Samskrit’ and ‘Pali’, in INDIA/Bharat of today..

  55. rachael -  August 13, 2012 - 5:40 am

    So are you saying God made a mistake? From your capitalization of His, I’m assuming you’re a believer… so what you’re saying is technically ridiculous.

    On the actual topic of this discussion, I do believe it is best to keep languages around… however, it would get in the way of pretty much everything the world holds dear these days- globalization, peaceful relationships, etc. Perhaps it would be better to merge the languages, like how Latin and Spanish merged to become Italian.
    And it isn’t only languages being lost, but culture! I live in Abu Dhabi, a city in the Middle East that, 50 years ago, was completely nomadic- now it’s a huge city that speaks English and Arabic and has lost the old way of life to make way for a very western new lifestyle. It’s a little sad.

  56. Sumedha Manabarana -  August 13, 2012 - 5:07 am

    The article ‘What is lost when a language goes extinct?’ provides useful information for interested readers. Comments, too are valuable. I feel happy regarding dedicated linguists and researchers, especially ‘google’ for their role in backing these language projects. And I also feel sad because if a particular language is lost, that particular culture is lost along with its people, I feel.
    Best Regards!

  57. bing -  August 13, 2012 - 3:47 am


  58. donna -  August 13, 2012 - 1:57 am

    Love the info, study many languages, interesting, learn cuktures, funny sayings, even “bad” words of what not to say…

  59. Cyberquill -  August 13, 2012 - 1:38 am

    First, God punished humans for their megalomaniacal aspirations by confounding their speech. But ever since God realized that all the different languages that resulted from His punishment began to turn into an asset for humanity, namely into a treasure trove of different ways to understand the world, He’s been trying to shrink the trove by making most languages go extinct.

  60. Tyler -  August 13, 2012 - 12:56 am

    I’m planning on eventually learning Okinawan. It is its own language, but some sources regard it as a dialect of Japanese. There is an Okinawan dialect of Japanese, but it is different from the Okinawan language. I clicked the site this article linked to. The site said there are 984,000 speakers of the Okinawan language. I know this is false. This is probably the number of people who speak the Japanese dialect of Okinawan. There are probably only around 100,000 or so speakers of Okinawan, but I cannot confirm this as it comes from my own speculation. Most of the speakers are probably elders born around WWII. My grandmother speaks Okinawan along with Japanese. Japan, as I’m sure most of you are aware, is an aging nation. Once the huge population of elders dies in Okinawa, I would not be surprised if Okinawan goes into a moribund state like the Ainu language of Hokkaido.

    Yes, I do believe it is important to preserve languages. People can say certain endemic languages are primitive all they want, but some of them may have nuances that have once or never existed in today’s commonly spoken languages. Our communication skills that have allowed us to convey abstract thoughts are what separates us from the other animals.


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