The Phenomenon of Language

Language is a complex phenomenon, which unites all human beings and impacts their cognitive and communication processes. The ability to communicate with complex signals, which are incorporated in various languages, significantly differentiates humans from other types of living beings on the planet. Apparently, language factor is one of the most important features for any civilization. The reason for this assumption is that language fosters cognitive processes and enables operation with complex and abstract notions. Moreover, the ability to communicate with the help of advanced language systems allows transforming abstract notions into more concrete objects. Thus, enhanced abstract and concrete thinking together with communication enables to create such societies and conditions for their living as cities. Consequently, numerous sciences study the phenomenon of language aiming at defining its basic concepts, systemic features, and other aspects. Currently, it is the object of interest for psychology, linguistics, sociology, history, and other branches of science including their broad range of narrower sub-branches. Furthermore, current reality and history of languages show that they undergo different processes, which include changes in their lexis and systemic structure. Among the most significant aspects demonstrating these processes are language maintenance, language shift, and language death. Thus, this paper investigates these phenomena characterizing them and giving specific examples for them. It is evident that language maintenance, language shift, and language death are the most significant aspects for sociolinguistics. Their analysis would enhance the general understanding of their role for sociolinguistics as well as for such branches as cognitive psychology and history of languages.

Before characterizing the processes, which influence the development and the decay of language systems, one has to characterize the language phenomenon generally and from the position of sociolinguistics. Thus, the language is a systemic phenomenon, which involves the usage of different signs in terms of social agreement. Malathi (2015) defines language as “the communicative means of man, which plays a great part in our life and distinguishes man from the animals.” Moreover, the scholar claims that any current language is the result of the historical movement, and it changes throughout thousands of years (Malathi, 2015). The amount of languages in the world is constantly changing because of social and other interactive reasons. In the contemporary world, it is estimated that there are about 7,000 different languages with 90% of them used by less than 100,000 people (“Languages of the world – Interesting facts about languages”, 2014). What is more, scholars indicate that about 46 languages have only one speaker whereas the majority of humanity speaks about 150-200 languages. The reasons for such statistics vary, but they are inevitably connected with the phenomena of language maintenance, shift, and death. Each language is characterized by structure and its vocabulary filling. Studies indicate that the most part of languages have similar grammatical structure even if they significantly differ in terms of vocabulary and are spoken on different continents (“Languages of the world – Interesting facts about languages”, 2014). One of the critical aspects of any language is its ability to change depending on various internal and external factors. Language changes occure constantly and involve its every level, which may include phonetic, graphic, lexical, grammatical, and other issues (Malathi, 2015). In their turn, language studies can be performed by means of comparing related but different languages existing at the same period of time. Likewise, language studies may focus on historical context comparing one language to another throughout their different stages of historical development. It is evident that many changes in languages reflect their general tendency for the development of more abstract and universal systems (Malathi, 2015). Thus, language maintenance, shift, and even death are the results of this tendency aiming at reaching versatility of the peculiar language system.

Language Maintenance and Language Shift

First, there is a need for the characteristics of language maintenance and language shift, as they are one of the basic aspects, which characterize any language system. Thus, the studying of these issues is connected with the relationship between the change of stability in habitual language use and ongoing psychological, social, and cultural processes (Fishman, 2013). Subsequently, language maintenance is the factor, which preserves a system of a particular language in its stable state and restrains the influence of exterior factors. Despite the fact it is impossible to completely bypass any of the exterior changes, it preserves the core of the language system allowing it to function without significant transformations. A peculiar feature of contemporary linguistics is that is puts particular stress on the social, political, cultural, and linguistic phenomena of heritage language maintenance and loss (Gonzalez, 2015). The reason for this is that the modern world has a variety of communities, which are characterized by the coexistence of the speakers of different languages. Therefore, there is a danger of losing identity of any particular language because of such active interaction. As characterized by the scholars, the exposure of the discussed phenomena may be observed in the case of coexistence of two linguistically distinguishable populations in contact (Malathi, 2015). Consequently, constant interaction causes the speakers to adopt peculiar grammar structures or lexemes, thus shifting the identity of their language. One of the examples studying the phenomena of language maintenance and shift explores the existence of the Slovenian minority group in one of the regions in northern Italy. Thus, as it was explored by the study of Jagodic (2011), the investigated processes among the Slovenian speakers revealed a persistent degree of language shift. As it was reported by the author, “the analysis of the language use patterns among the Slovenian community members, presented in the first section, has clearly revealed a slow, yet progressive advancing of the processes of the shift towards the use of the Italian language.” The implications of this study advise the community members about establishing activities aimed at language maintenance within the targeted community.

Moreover, it is evident that similar investigations addressing the issues of language maintenance and language shift indicate the fact that minor language communities are endangered by the bigger neighbors. The reason for the fears associated with this phenomenon is that any language is regarded as the core of culture and the basic cultural value (Bradley, Bradley, 2013). Therefore, analyzed issues are relevant for the communities having bilingualism and coexistence of minor and major language populations. Likewise, similar shifts may be observed if minor cultures experience difficulties with mastering their own languages whereas the neighboring language of a major culture is easier to learn. Moreover, such relations can be noticed in case the society supports, tolerates, or represses language minorities for their languages (Bradley, Bradley, 2013). Thus, the tendencies of language shift are observed in the case of Italians’ and Catalonians’ coexisting. The result of this coexistence is that despite former historical opposition between Catalan and Italic communities, the Catalan society has become mostly Spanish-speaking (Newman, Trenchs-Parera, 2015). Likewise, similar historical processes can be detected in the case of the English language history. Thus, Knooihuizen (2015) claims that despite the coexistence of Cornish English, Manx English, and Shetland Scots in Early Modern English period, they had an overall tendency towards unification. The result of this process was becoming of some grammatical forms and lexemes more common, whereas the others were substituted actualizing the scenario of standardization through language shift.

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Therefore, gradually, various dialects coexisting in Early Modern English period lost their varieties when facing the reality of the predominant language standard. On the contrary, there are cases in history when English was driven out from certain communities since it was the feature of minor social groups. Such case is described in the study of Perez (2015), who investigates the reasons for social rejection of the English language by the inhabitants of Paraguay’s New Australia. The scholar argues about the fact that at the end of the 20th century, almost 600 colonizers from the UK and Australia settled in Paraguay (Perez, 2015). Their initial goal was setting up the society of pure English-speakers. However, the sociolinguistic history of the community in Paraguay indicates that it was divided into speakers of Spanish and English. As a result of the domination of Spanish language in the country, the English community was underrepresented, which caused English language’s disappearance from Paraguay (Perez, 2015). Thus, even if language may have a majority of speakers worldwide, it may disappear from particular countries with no community support.

Furthermore, there is a need for the discussion of language maintenance and language shift in the time of globalization. Thus, it is evident that the world speakers favor a small list of mostly spoken languages. Among the top five spoken languages in the world are Mandarin, English, Hindustani, Spanish, and Russian with over 1 billion, 508, 497, 392, and 277 million speakers respectively (“Top 10 most spoken languages in the world”, 2008). This fact means that in case there is a community of minor language speakers, its language may be exposed to danger of extinction or language death. Therefore, there is a need for the characteristics of the reasons and factors causing language disappearance

Language Death

A peculiar value of any language lies in the fact that it represents the vision of the world depicted through the perception of the speakers. Thus, the language death is a significant negative event, which causes a loss of cultural individuality represented by it. The existence of any language is supported by a broad range of political, economic, demographic, and social factors (Crystal, 2012). Therefore, these factors may also cause or stimulate the loss of a language. Furthermore, since language cannot be separated from its speakers, one may presume that the first languages appeared with the first humans and their organized communities. Scholars assume that if humans started speaking 200,000 years ago and the first language appeared 100,000 years ago, there might be between 64,000 and 140,000 languages ever existing (Brons, 2014). It is evident that some part of them is already dead, whereas approximately 2,500 of the existing ones are considered endangered (Kornai, 2013). Moreover, there are scientists, who estimate that the total number of languages may be higher up to the proportion of 50-90% of the assumed world’s 6,900 languages (Romaine, 2013). According to various claims, the result of this may be not only social, economic, or political factors but, additionally, the language environment. For instance, Romaine (2013) indicates that environmental changes of the past, which caused hunger and diseases, changed the ecosystems of the existing societies. As a result, their migration and assimilation led to the death of various language groups. However, developing the concept of the ecology of language, Romaine (2013) blends it with other features such as sociological and psychological conditions of each language along with their impact.

Furthermore, some linguists mix sociolinguistic and biological theories in order to find the adequate explanation of the processes of the languages extinction. Thus, Ritchie (2014) refers to the study of Claude Hagege who traces the analogy between the existence of language and theories of evolution. Additionally, the author stresses that certain linguists explored this phenomenon through the prism of Darwinian concepts of natural selection, speciation, and extinction (Ritchie, 2014). A peculiar feature of his views is that he considered that a language may live even though it has no speakers but only written texts. In this sense, texts were regarded as autonomous reproductions of an extinct language. At the same time, Ritchie (2014) argues that the dying languages experience the processes of lexical, phonological, and grammatical erosion. As it is viewed by the scholar, these events are the result of the absence of intergenerational communication and the absence of younger speakers. Additionally, one should note that language death is a natural phenomenon, which is caused by the ignorance of a language towards social resistance and its assimilation into the dominant language (Canagarajah, 2015). Thus, despite scholar claims that psycholinguistic aspects of language assimilation require additional sociolinguistic research (Canagarajah, 2015), he discusses the phenomenon of linguistic emancipation.

The example of the result of language death may be the Maliseet language, the only speaker of which has lost his linguistic knowledge at a young age (Sodikoff, 2012). As a result, the former speaker of Maliseet has lost one’s cultural reference and identity by means of assimilation with other culture. Consequently, scholars indicate that pidgin- and creole-speaking people are among those speakers, whose languages remain on the fringe of the world’s languages (Sodicoff, 2012). Therefore, they suffer from the pressure of bigger cultural communities and more popular languages, which, in turn, endanger their historically natural community and language.

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The discussed issue shows that the natural language shift towards more favored languages and cultures causes the overall language shift of minor language communities. As a result, younger speakers of these communities refuse to learn their own language and culture giving favor to more popular, useful, or easier language. At the same time, the endangered language itself experiences assimilative processes with the dominating language. The result of this is that its phonemic structure, grammatical structure, and the vocabulary obtain features from the host language. Thus, gradually, language shift causes language death. In order to resists these processes, minor language communities should develop language and culture preserving programs. These programs and initiatives should focus on language maintenance activities maintaining the unicity of the natural language of a peculiar community. As a result, the speakers would preserve cultural resistance towards the communities with major language. Therefore, these actions would allow language to live even in the case of having underrepresented community of its speakers.

Summarizing the presented information, the study comes to a conclusion that language maintenance, language shift, and language death are three significant factors for any society. The reason for this assumption is that any group of speakers has to have language maintenance with the aim of saving the unicity of their language and resisting assimilation. In contrast, language shift is a process of active relationship between the speakers of two languages characterized with a high degree of assimilation. A peculiar feature of this process is that minor language communities tend to lose the features of their languages when faced with major ones. As a result, gradual language shift towards the major culture causes the language death in minor culture. Such death is accompanied by the assimilation of phonemic and grammatical structures of the underrepresented language as well as its vocabulary. Therefore, minor communities require the establishment of measures and initiatives aimed at preserving the existence of their languages. Consequently, the activities towards enhancing language maintenance in minor language community would allow avoiding language death.

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