An extinct language is a language that no longer has any speakers, especially if the language has no living descendants. In contrast, a dead language is "one that is no longer the native language of any community", even if it is still in use, like Latin. Languages that currently have living native speakers are sometimes called modern languages to contrast them with dead languages, especially in educational contexts.
In the modern period, languages have typically become extinct as a result of the process of cultural assimilation leading to language shift, and the gradual abandonment of a native language in favour of a foreign lingua franca, largely those of European countries.
As of the 2000s, a total of roughly 7,000 natively spoken languages existed worldwide. Most of these are minor languages in danger of extinction; one estimate published in 2004 expected that some 90% of the currently spoken languages will have become extinct by 2050.
Normally the transition from a spoken to an extinct language occurs when a language undergoes language death by being directly replaced by a different one. For example, many Native American languages were replaced by English, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch as a result of colonization.
In contrast to an extinct language, which no longer has any speakers, or any written use, a historical language may remain in use as a literary or liturgical language long after it ceases to be spoken natively. Such languages are sometimes also referred to as "dead languages", but more typically as classical languages. The most prominent Western example of such a language is Latin, but comparable cases are found throughout world history due to the universal tendency to retain an historical stage of a language as liturgical language.
Historical languages with living descendants that have undergone significant language change may be considered "extinct", especially in cases where they did not leave a corpus of literature or liturgy that remained in widespread use (see corpus language), as is the case with e.g. Old English or Old High German relative to their contemporary descendants, English and German.
Some degree of misunderstanding can result from designating languages such as Old English and Old High German as extinct, or Latin dead, while ignoring their evolution as a language. This is expressed in the apparent paradox "Latin is a dead language, but Latin never died." A language such as Etruscan, for example, can be said to be both extinct and dead: inscriptions are ill understood even by the most knowledgeable scholars, and the language ceased to be used in any form long ago, so that there have been no speakers, native or non-native, for many centuries. In contrast, Old English, Old High German and Latin never ceased evolving as living languages, nor did they become totally extinct as Etruscan did. Through time Latin underwent both common and divergent changes in phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon and continues today as the native language of hundreds of millions of people, renamed as different Romance languages and dialects (French, Italian, Spanish, Corsican, Asturian, Ladin, etc.). Similarly, Old English and Old High German never died, but developed into various forms of modern English and German. With regard to the written language, skills in reading or writing Etruscan are all but non-existent, but trained people can understand and write Old English, Old High German and Latin. Latin differs from the Germanic counterparts in that an approximation of its ancient form is still employed to some extent liturgically. This last observation illustrates that for Latin, Old English, or Old High German to be described accurately as dead or extinct, the language in question must be conceptualized as frozen in time at a particular state of its history. This is accomplished by periodizing English and German as Old; for Latin, the most apt clarifying adjective is Classical, which also normally includes designation of high or formal register.
Minor languages are endangered mostly due to economic and cultural globalization and development. With increasing economic integration on national and regional scales, people find it easier to communicate and conduct business in the dominant lingua francas of world commerce: English, Chinese, Spanish and French.
In their study of contact-induced language change, American linguists Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman (1991) stated that in situations of cultural pressure (where populations are forced to speak a dominant language), three linguistic outcomes may occur: first - and most commonly - a subordinate population may shift abruptly to the dominant language, leaving the native language to a sudden linguistic death. Second, the more gradual process of language death may occur over several generations. The third and most rare outcome is for the pressured group to maintain as much of its native language as possible, while borrowing elements of the dominant language's grammar (replacing all, or portions of, the grammar of the original language).
Institutions such as the education system, as well as (often global) forms of media such as the Internet, television, and print media play a significant role in the process of language loss. For example, when people migrate to a new country, their children attend school in the country, and the schools are likely to teach them in the majority language of the country rather than their parents' native language.
Language revival is the attempt to re-introduce a recently extinct language in everyday use by a new generation of native speakers. The optimistic neologism "sleeping beauty languages" has been used to express such a hope.
Hebrew is an example of a liturgical language that has successfully been revived for everyday use. The revival of Hebrew has been largely successful due to extraordinarily favourable conditions, notably the creation of a nation state in which it became the official language, as well as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's extreme dedication to the revival of the language, by creating new words for the modern terms Hebrew lacked. Revival attempts for minor languages with no status as liturgical language typically have more modest results. The Cornish language revival is an example of a major successful language revival: after a century of effort there are 3,500 claimed native speakers; enough for UNESCO to change its classification from "extinct" to "critically endangered".
Recently extinct languages
This is a list of languages reported as having become extinct after the year 2000. For a more complete list, see List of extinct languages.
|Date||Language||Language family||Region||Terminal speakers / Notes|
|February 2016||Nuchatlaht dialect of Nuu-chah-nulth||Wakashan||British Columbia, Canada||Alban Michael|
|February 4, 2014||Klallam
|Salishan||Washington, United States: northeast Olympic Peninsula, Port Angeles.||Hazel Sampson|
|June 5, 2013||Livonian
Liv, Livõ kel
|Uralic||Latvia: Kurzeme, west of Kolkasrags, 12 coastal villages; Riga area dispersed.||Grizelda Kristina|
|October 2, 2012||Cromarty dialect of Scots
Black Isle dialect
|Germanic||Northern Scotland, United Kingdom||Bobby Hogg|
|October 24, 2010||Pazeh
|Formosan languages||Taiwan: West coast area, east of Tayal, Cholan area, Houli, Fengyuan, Tantzu, Taichung, Tungshih.||Pan Jin-yu|
|August 20, 2010||Cochin Indo-Portuguese Creole
|Portuguese-based Creole||southern India: a few Christian families on Vypeen Island (Vypin Island) in the city of Cochin (Kochi) in Kerala.||William Rozario|
|January 26, 2010||Aka-Bo
|Andamanese||Andaman Islands, India: east central coast of North Andaman island, North Reef island.||Boa Sr.|
|2009||Nyawaygi||Pama–Nyungan||Australia: Northeast Queensland, Herberton south to Herbert river headwaters, to Cashmere, at Ravenshoe, Millaa Millaa and Woodleigh, east to Tully Falls.||Willie Seaton|
|Andamanese||Andaman Islands, India: northeast and north central coasts of North Andaman Island, Smith Island.||Boro|
|by 2009 ||Pataxó Hã-Ha-Hãe||unclassified||Brazil: Minas Gerais and Bahia states, Pôsto Paraguassu in Itabuna municipality.||shifted to Portuguese.|
|January 21, 2008||Eyak
|Na-Dene||Alaska, United States: Copper river mouth.||Marie Smith Jones|
Bidjara, Bithara, Bitjara
|Pama–Nyungan||Queensland, Australia: between Tambo and Augathella, Warrego and Langlo rivers.||20 speakers found in 1981; effectively extinct by 2008|
|c.2006 (?)||A-Pucikwar||Andamanese||Andaman Islands, India: Straight Island.||
10 or fewer speakers found in 2006; was reportedly spoken by 8–10 of total population of 53 individuals on Strait Island.
|2005||Osage||Siouan||Oklahoma, United States||Lucille Roubedeaux|
Ahkkil, Babino, Babinsk
|Uralic||Kola Peninsula, Russia: Murmanskaya Oblast’, southwest Kola peninsula.||Marja Sergina|
Abdedal, Abiddul, Gaagudju, Kakadu, Kakakta, Kakdju, Kakdjuan
|Arnhem Land languages||Northern Territory, Australia: Oenpelli.||Big Bill Neidjie|
|2000||Sowa||Malayo-Polynesian||Pentecost Island, Vanuatu||Maurice Tabi|
|Trans-New Guinea||Papua New Guinea: Central Province, north and west of Laua.||one speaker found in 1987|
|c.2000||Mesmes||Semitic||Ethiopia: YeDebub Biheroch Biherese na Hizboch State, Gurage, Hadiyya, and Kambaata zones.||Last speaker was interviewed by language survey team, aged ~80. He had not spoken the language for 30 years.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Extinct languages.|
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