Since modern science has extended life spans and lowered infant and child mortality rates, world population has been increasing at an exponential rate leading to major changes in human migration. This migration has created larger and larger populous centers that has resulted in cultural homogenization and the dominance of fewer languages (ahem, English).
Okay, that’s not necessarily the reality, but it’s a theory.
Baby boom? Baby explosion
In 1850, the world population was estimated to be about 1 billion people. Today it is over 7.5. Between 1900 and 2000 the amount of people wandering this planet has increased more than the previous entirety of human history. Meaning that of the 108 billion souls who have ever existed, 6.5 percent are alive right now. Stop reading for a second and just imagine that.
World population growth can be broken down into three periods: pre-modernity, modernity, and what we are in now; let’s call it post-modernity. The pre-modernity period was the long, slow process of humans populating almost the entire face of the earth. At that time, the population growth rate was well below 1%. When charted from the year 10,000 BCE, population at around 2,000,000, the rate increases about 50% per millennia until the year 1 CE. This is man in his natural state. Living in tribes that slowly moved and settled, adapting to new environments while slowly languages were gradually evolving in the background. Over time, some settled tribes grew larger and larger until they became kingdoms that wiped out smaller tribes and eventually grew to become empires that forced culture and language onto the conquered.
Around 1800 the population chart makes a muscle and heads straight up. This is the modern era marked by medical, nutritional, mechanical, and philosophical development at an astonishing rate. Empires grew to enormous sizes and populations became more and more centralized in urban environments.
As a result of these changes population growth changed from less than 1% pre-1850 to a high point in 1962 of 2.1%. The focal point of growth between 1920 and 1970 saw the world’s population quadruple. Since then, though the population continued to grow, the percentage rate has dropped and future projections show a downward trend to a growth rate of only 0.1% by 2100 but with a population of over 11 billion.
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As anyone can obviously see, this is a tremendous increase of one species. Humans are a super organism. We work together to dominate everything else, whether it be animal, mineral, vegetable, or elemental. And what’s the main tool our super organism uses to conquer? Communication. And what is our main form of communication? You guessed it: language.
So as the theory continues, in order for our super organism to prosper at its peak, we homogenize our language.
Languages die both suddenly and all at once
Until very modern history, cultures and languages were wiped out with war as cultures were destroyed in defeat or enslaved and had new languages forced upon them. The 19th and 20th century saw European colonization spread across the world, slicing up Africa, Asia, South America, and islands across the Pacific and throughout the Caribbean. Colonizers impressed their own languages which became de facto official, pushing indigenous tongues either into extinction or into the background. French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese dominated the planet replacing an unknowable diversity of languages.
Currently, there are about 7,000 languages worldwide, of which around one disappears every two weeks. By some estimates 80% of existent languages today will die out in the next century. Indigenous languages are dying out as populations shift to urban areas where there is a dominant language. Young people leave their traditional communities seeking richer more comfortable lives and their native languages vanish with the aging populations.
New research has identified the five regions of the world where languages are disappearing most rapidly. The “hot spots” of imminent language extinctions are: Northern Australia, Central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, Eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the United States’ Southwest.
Though there are movements to save traditional languages across the globe, there is little hope for most. In traditional communities people who once turned their backs on ancestral languages are returning and trying to preserve them. Scientists are stressing that traditional languages in the Amazon basin have words for plant species as yet unrecognized to the outside world and predictions maintain that as language never exists in a vacuum, new languages will be created from our ever-intermingling world population.
Language diversity is a major part of the beautiful tapestry that is our shared humanity, but ironically, part of that condition is to self-destruct. As the main effect of the human existence on Earth right now, climate change will cause major coastal urban centers to disappear under the sea while the residents flee inland to safety creating even denser, more numerous cities which will result in further language conformity.
Maybe a single shared language will be good for us. No more lost in translation problems. No more multilingual assembly instructions on knock-off press board furniture. No more getting scammed in foreign countries. No more subtitles. Right?
But what do those changes mean? No more variety. No more diversity. Just one big, homogeneous world. Are you ready?