More languages close to extinction

By Derek Cheng

About half the planet's languages are facing extinction and with them a differing vision of the world, says a leading language expert.

Professor David Crystal, of the University of North Wales, said: "This is the big crisis. Of the 6000 or so languages in the world, half are so seriously endangered they are unlikely to last the century.

"Each language in the world is a unique vision of the world. Each has something to offer everyone else. The more visions of the world, the more you understand notions of tolerance."

Professor Crystal is in New Zealand to give a series of lectures on linguistics and language.

"The number of speakers go from the two billion or so that speak English, to about 60 languages in the world where there is one speaker left. These are the ones in danger. Ninety-six per cent of the world's languages are spoken by 4 per cent of the people."

But revitalising languages is not difficult as long as the community wants it to survive, "like here with Maori".

"The main way to show that a language has achieved respect is when you borrow words from it and the number of Maori words coming into New Zealand English is increasing.

"If people didn't want Maori to be part of the community, they would ignore it completely, as if it didn't exist."

Professor Crystal said the ethnic make-up of New Zealand was becoming increasingly diverse, which would move society towards multi-lingualism.

"The unique thing about New Zealand English is the influence of the Maori and, increasingly, the greater ethnicity of peoples as they move over the world.

"In every part of the English-speaking world, English is changing and reflecting that cultural mix."

But just how multilingual New Zealand became depended on how much it embraced diversity.

Speech markers linked to ethnicity

Victoria University post-graduate student Marianna Kennedy, who has researched New Zealand English, says regional features can be linked to ethnic groups.

"Many features had no obvious source, but become identity markers for social and ethnic groups.And these don't necessarily say anything about that group."

One such feature is a noticeable "r" in words such as "girl" and "person" emerging among students at schools with a high Maori population in Northland and South Auckland.

But students of similar make-up on the East Cape showed no such trend.

"A similar 'r' sound in Southland is well-known, this time linked to Scottish settlers, and my research found evidence of this further north than previously thought in parts of Otago."

The research was based on the speech of 12-year-olds recorded in 33 schools throughout New Zealand in 2001.

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