John McWhorter in the New York Sun:
In the rush of the holiday season you may have missed that a white buffalo was born at a small zoo in Pennsylvania. Only one in 10 million buffalo is born white, and local Native Americans gave him a name in the Lenape language: kenahkihinen, which means “watch over us.”
They found that in a book, however. No one has actually spoken Lenape for a very long time. It was once the language of what is now known as the tristate area, but its speakers gradually switched to English, as happened to the vast majority of the hundreds of languages Native Americans once spoke in North America.
The death of languages is typically described in a rueful tone. There are a number of books treating the death of languages as a crisis equal to endangered species and global warming. However, I’m not sure it’s the crisis we are taught that it is.
There is a part of me, as a linguist, that does see something sad in the death of so many languages. It is happening faster than ever: It has been said that a hundred years from now 90% of the current 6,000 languages will be gone.
Each extinction means that a fascinating way of putting words together is no longer alive. In, for example, Inuktitut Eskimo, which, by the way, is not dying, “I should try not to become an alcoholic” is one word: Iminngernaveersaartunngortussaavunga.