As languages vanish, can cultures be far behind?

Ehtesham Shahid
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This may sound Greek or Latin to some, but it is a fact that in just the last three generations more than 200 languages have become extinct around the world. About half of around 6,000 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing and even a simple Google search will tell you that one language dies every two weeks.

We are not hitting the panic button yet, however, as this phenomenon seems to be unfolding in far-flung areas and not exactly in our vicinity. It could also be because we have become used to the change that is triggering this process. Either way, our lack of awareness is probably perpetuating this cycle.


Linguists, and people observing social transformations, would tell you that more and more communities around the world are abandoning their languages in favor of English, Mandarin or Spanish. This may be manifesting itself at a personal or familial level, which is often the case with immigrant communities.

Dominant culture

This is happening because speakers of these languages simply absorb a dominant language or cultural group. In the good old days, this phenomenon was commonly attributed to oppression by colonial powers but today we only have an all-encompassing globalization to blame for it.

If we are allowing languages – and cultures associated with them – to fade away, it is unlikely we will make efforts to revive them

Ehtesham Shahid

Even though UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger claims that this process is neither inevitable nor irreversible, anecdotal evidence suggests that if we are allowing languages – and cultures associated with them – to fade away, it is unlikely we will make efforts to revive them.

Languages may be vehicles of our cultures, and an essential component of our identities, they have also become disposable commodities in today’s struggle for existence or equality. The sane among us see the language we speak as building blocks of our diversity and living heritage but they have also become easily disposable in today’s consumerist culture.

A photographer’s trail

Shahid Hashmi has been a ravenous traveler for over 35 years. During his expeditions, he intimately engages with the people and documents their indigenous and unique lifestyle and culture.

In recent years, Hashmi’s engagement with the cultural landscape of the places he visits and its threatened and endangered indigenous cultures has grown manifold, and he has been documenting this in his ongoing project called ‘Vanishing Cultures of the world’.

Hashmi’s first-hand experience suggests that these cultures are disappearing at a rate much faster than could be imagined.

“The main cause of this is the disappearing indigenous languages that younger generations refuse to learn and speak,” he says.
According to him, elders and the young generations have their own justifications and excuses. “It seems to be a tussle between a want to hold on and keep the old versus the need to adapt the new and modern.”

Hosting languages

Thought leader and corporate adviser Bharat Wakhlu interestingly calls human being the “hosts” of the languages they speak and emphasizes that languages blossom when communities speaking them prosper.

“Usage is a critical factor for the survival and the continued advancement of a language. When usage diminishes – either because communities adopt new languages, or immigrate to other regions, acquiring new ways of spoken communication – the old languages tend to die,” he says.

This is indeed a complex phenomenon, with accompanying social and political factors. Historically, languages thrived with rising powers and went downhill with their collapse. But this is not written in stone. The trajectories of Latin in Europe cannot be compared to Sanskrit in India. They may be both extinct but for different reasons.

Languages have their own logic and follow their own dynamics. For instance, only 230 languages are spoken in Europe today while there are 2,197 of them in Asia. Wherever we go, we don’t need to worry about English, Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish or Portuguese.

However, we do need to focus on languages spoken by a chosen few. In doing so, we would have preserved the diversity that their cultures bring to the planet, lest we live in a world where all of us speak the same language, eat the same food and are culturally the same.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham and he can be reached at [email protected].

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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