Bringing a language to life, what to learn from dying languages

Among conlangs, the yardstick for success is pretty low. Having 1-2 fluent speakers is quite a milestone for a conlang and a reason to rejoice.  Having only 1-2 fluent speakers of a natural language and people are more likely to say it’s too late to bother.  Really though, it’s the same problem.

A language dies for all sorts of reason, such as:

Suppression and Death. All your speakers
….drown in a tsunami.
….are rounded up exiled to the big city. Or killed.
….sent to boarding schools where the kids are physically punished for speaking anything but English

Don’t piss off the gods, the local warlords or city council if you want your constructed language to thrive.

Domain Loss. Languages die when the domains in which they are used gets too narrow. For example, at home, at work, at church, when interacting with mass media, when talking to strangers on the street.  Of  these, an individual can only control the “at home” part.

Family Dynamics. Less dramatically languages die when in net  woman marry into families that don’t speak their language and the men don’t marry.

I think an important milestone for a conlang is if a significant other speaks it.  For example, Zamenhof’s wife learned Esperanto and spoke it at home, one of the guys responsible for the revival of Hebrew decreed that Hebrew would be spoken at home (and wasn’t ignored), Klingon’s Krankor’s significant other speaks Klingon.

In sum, to bring a language to life, it has to be useful for finding a date.  If it isn’t useful for that, it won’t be spoken at home.  If it isn’t spoken at home, it will be locked out of the only domain where an individual can influence choice of language.

Mothers and Kids. Kids learn their language from their primary care taker.  So is mum doesn’t speak it, the kids won’t.  To get mum to speak it, it would have to have been useful before the kids showed up.

Kids growing up. For kids to keep speaking it, it has to be useful. Again, since individuals can only choose their language at home–someone else has chosen the language of all other domains– kids won’t bother to keep speaking it unless it will be useful for finding a date when they grow up.  And we’re  back to where we started.  A language needs to be useful for finding a date.

English need only be useful for reading mass media or  for working to survive.  But a conlang must be useful for finding a date.  Or it will die, like any other natural language with two speakers.

One thought on “Bringing a language to life, what to learn from dying languages

  1. You mention some very good points. About 50% of the native speakers of Esperanto don’t use it after their childhood. There was an article about Esperanto being used in several generations in “Revuo Esperanto” some years ago. I was interviewed and said that it is important that everyone gets his own access to the language and its usefulness. After childhood, you have to find something interesting for yourself (youth gatherings, party, travelling without parents and so on). The drop-out rate of 50% is not bad. It shows that everyone is free to decide what to do with his life and languages.

    However, it is wrong that children learn languages from their mother “or not at all”. I learned Esperanto from my father. Others might learn it from another relative.