What do we lose when a language dies?

Languages die everyday. What do we really lose when they die? Answering this question helps us to understand the value of translation.

Marco Neves
Jul 4, 2018 · 9 min read

Try this: take the nearest atlas and look for the map of Latin languages. Yes, I know that not all atlases include the languages — and to tell you the truth, with the appearance of Google Maps and others like it, it is quite possible that atlases will become increasingly rare on our shelves. And this is a shame: Atlases are wonderful books.

Well, it doesn’t matter. Let’s use Google. Here is one of the maps I found during my search:

Romance languages. Map. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 15 Feb. 2018.
<https://www.britannica.com/topic/Romance-languages?oasmId=2094>

Do you not find anything unusual? You can see that this map represents all the territories where Latin, over many centuries and in a much more complex way than we imagine, has slowly been transformed into something else — or rather, into other things.

If you follow the map with your finger, you’ll see that in Europe these languages occupy the south — and they travel from Lisbon to Bucharest.

But at some point there is a grey space.

Why is that? Why are there no romance languages in this area between Italy and Romania?

In fact, there aren’t, but there were… One of them was Dalmatian — a name that makes us think of dogs, but it used to be the name of a language.

Until the 19th century, this Romance language was spoken in Dalmatia, the region that today is the (beautiful) coast of Croatia.

Dubrovnik, a city with a very Slavic name, was called Ragusa in this language. Split was called Spalato.

It was a language with some curious characteristics. For example, we know that there are many Romance languages where the Latin “c”, before the “e” and the “i”, undergoes changes (usually a palatization).

If the Romans said ‘Kikero’ for ‘Cicero’, we (the Portuguese) say ‘Síssero’ and the Spaniards something like ‘Thíthero’.

However, this transformation does not occur in all Romance languages. Sardinian, for example, maintains the Latin sounds. Cicero will continue to be somewhat similar to ‘Kíkero’ in Sardinia. Dalmatian, however, makes this change — but only before the ‘i’. So ‘Cícero’ would be ‘Cíkero’.

When I look at a list of words in this language that no one speaks any more, I can’t shake off the taste of Romance languages: many things are different, but somehow, they remind me of my language: Portuguese. ‘Quando’ (when) is ‘kand’,’ ‘pouco” (little) is ‘pauk’, ‘pesado’ (heavy) is ‘pesunt’ (I wonder how they’d say a ‘presunto pesado’ (heavy ham),’marido’ (husband) is ‘marait’, ‘ ‘pele’ (skin) is ‘pial’, ‘orelha’ (ear) is ‘orakla’

And what does this language look like in writing? Here is the beginning of the ‘Our Father’ prayer in the language [source]:

Tuota nuester, che te sante intel sil,

sait santificuot el naun to.

Vigna el raigno to.

Sait fuot la voluntuot toa, coisa in sil, coisa in tiara.

Duote costa dai el pun nuester cotidiun.


Dalmatian disappeared when Tuone Udaina died, in 1898, after describing the language he had heard spoken by his parents to a linguist, although he had had no contact with it for more than 20 years.

Now, this is an example that is especially interesting because it represents one of the missing links between Italian and Romanian. However, it is not the only language that has disappeared — the same thing happens to many languages and dialects all over the world. In fact, according to this article in El País, one language dies every 14 days.

Why? One of the reasons will be that we are still living in a period of increasing uniformity: the national languages of the various nation-states have an increasingly strong presence in people’s lives — and in certain regions they reached populations only in the twentieth century. Just think of Spain, where even 100 years ago it was possible to find villages where few people could speak Spanish. And even in Portugal, if we go back a few decades, we find a country where contact between people from different regions and with different ways of speaking Portuguese happened much less than it does nowadays.

These processes lead to the gradual standardization of languages or even the elimination of other languages competing in the same territory.

In the case of Dalmatian, the disappearance would have had much to do with the expansion of the Slavic languages in that region. There was no state that chose Dalmatian as its own language, and in the nineteenth century the Republic of Ragusa, where Dalmatian was one of the main languages, disappeared.

Even without a State, many languages still survive. However, there was no region or community with a strong sense of identity that could take Dalmatian as its own brand — unlike what happened in Catalonia, for example. Soon Dalmatian continued to be the comfortable mother tongue of many — but it was not promoted in schools, by the urban elites, by the written media… It was lost and became less and less useful, without anyone wanting to save it.

This case does not seem particularly serious. All the people who live there are happy and satisfied with the current languages. No one feels poorer nowadays for speaking Croatian and not a Romance language. And yet, think what you would feel if you knew that your mother tongue, the language in which you learned to speak, was destined to disappear. Think of the last speaker: how will a person feel having a language in their head that they cannot speak with anyone? How will the last person, to whom those exact words remind them of the beaches of Ragusa or the sound of the wind on those beautiful shores of Dalmatia, feel?

At this point, there are two dangerous ways of dealing with this…


The first way is this: there are those who do not care. The language disappears and that’s it. What matters is the people. The death of a language, if it is not a sign of the violent death of its speakers, can be a natural and undramatic process. For some of those who have this attitude of shrugging it off, the disappearance of languages is a necessary step to solve a problem of humanity: the fact that we do not understand ourselves — these naïve people are waiting for the day when we all speak the same language to see the world in peace. In the absence of this international objective, the death of certain languages may be a necessary step in the construction of a national language. Curiously, it is very common for these people to be speakers of languages that are not in danger. In the end, the death of a language does not matter much — unless it’s mine.

This way of dealing with this issue is essentially a nationalistic attitude and should be considered within the framework of the power relations in each state (just look what happens in Spain). Now, in response to those who would like to see the number of languages diminishing until we reach the mythical situation where the whole world speaks the same language: humanity will never speak the same language, nor would this mean the end of the wars or the problems that we have.

I will also say that despite the recent process of linguistic unification in the wake of the expansion of the nation-state in the last 200 years, the truth is that languages split when there are political, geographical or social barriers. If all countries began to speak English (for example), that common language would soon begin the inevitable process of transformation into new, separate languages, which might only be heard on the street (with English as a standard in writing and in schools) or perhaps it would take on, sooner or later, new standard forms. That’s essentially what happened to Latin.

Is there a way to prevent the World Language from shattering? Hardly: only a world government with an iron grip on linguistic variation could (perhaps) impose a single language for centuries and centuries. I even shudder at the thought of such horror. Anyway, I digress: in fact, to think that the death of a language is not worthy of our tears doesn’t mean you want a linguistic dictatorship. We’ll get back to this.


But before that, I’ll talk about the second and opposite way to deal with this issue: there are those who start churning out almost mystical speeches about worlds that are lost forever, or even national spirits that disappear. For them, the death of a language is the death of the whole world. In fact, the world dies whenever anyone dies…

This attitude often appears among those who argue that each language represents a distinct way of seeing the world — and that translation between languages is an illusion.

For those who support this insurmountable separation between the speakers of various languages, the death of a language is the death of something mythical. However, if we look closely, if what the speakers of a language know, or can transmit, is impossible to translate or communicate to the speakers of other languages, then the disappearance of a language is not so serious. We wouldn’t have access to what that language had to offer us, anyway. It is only serious for the speakers of the language, but if they are already dead, what do we miss about that language?

The reader may want, now that we are approaching the end of the text, a significant position: the compulsive cry of one who sees a language depart or the shrug of one who thinks that none of this matters. In fact, I have something else: an immense curiosity about all these languages, dead or constantly changing, but little desire to tear my hair out looking for ethereal ideas about the mystical value of this language or that language.

The rooftops of Ragusa.

Let us leave with this: the disappearance of a language is indeed a loss, but it is necessary to dig a little further to understand why — I found at least two reasons:

  1. When a language disappears, there is less interest in protecting a literary tradition and a series of texts written in this tradition. There are, therefore, a series of translations that are not created.
  2. Then we have the original texts that will not be written. This is because all texts can be translated, but many of them would never have been written in the other language…

For example, let us think of The Lusiads. Is it possible to translate the epic poem by Camões? Yes, of course: there are countless translations, each one with its defects and strengths, but they are there, showing that the text is not inaccessible to readers of other languages (and if we say that each translation is incomplete, let’s remember that each reading is always incomplete and it is perhaps even easier for a reader of a translation to arrive at certain meanings that the Portuguese reader no longer finds in the sixteenth-century words).

That said, it is worth noting that the poem was created with a particular formula, a number of syllables per verse, certain rhymes, well-placed stanzas. It can be translated, but it would never have been written that way in another language. The content itself would be different. The particular way in which each language picks up sounds to create words pushes authors to a particular solution for a particular phrase, to a particular story — or even represents a particular problem, which urges the author to look for new ways of seeing and saying.

Translators then pick up the originals and create texts in their own language that bring in some new ideas, different ways of telling a story, and occasionally an original perspective on the world — and all this can be translated and shared worldwide, but perhaps it would not exist if there had not been someone who, within a certain language, imagined a particular text, created within a certain language. There is also the very creativity of translators in the search for solutions to the problems created by the differences between languages — but I will leave that for another day.

We could say that languages pick at each other — through translation — to create new ways of seeing things in the world. That is why the death of a language is always a loss for all of us: there are texts that will not be written in that language — or in any other language. There is ghost literature hidden behind the names of dead languages.

If you are ever lucky enough to take a dip off the beautiful beaches of Croatia, have a moment’s silence for the old sounds of a language that no longer exists. And in silence, tell yourself that you are in Ragusa when you see the rooftops of Dubrovnik.

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Translated by Jennifer King. You can find the Portuguese version of this article here.

Language Travels

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Thanks to Bernardo Calhanas.

Marco Neves

Written by

Author. Translator. Teacher. Father. There's something else I can't remember. www.certaspalavras.net/marconeves

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