Is it possible to predict that a language is about to die out just by looking at its structure? So without taking into account the number of native speakers it has and other external factors? If so, how?

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    I wouldn't think it is possible to predict from language structure. – Greg Lee Jun 8 '19 at 22:16
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    I wouldn't either. Though in the advanced stages of language death when you're dealing with a few older speakers with various infirmities and crochets, it's hard to ignore the holes in the data when they can't quite figure out what to say or how to say it. – jlawler Jun 8 '19 at 22:22

You can somewhat predict language death from current available data on the language, but not from the structure itself. A factor that accompanies language death is that speakers have significant uncertainty as to what the facts are. The reason is that the speakers hardly use the language anymore: so, if you have a really incoherent corpus of data, this suggests that the language is falling out of use. Abrupt social upheaval, where most of the speakers are killed and dispersed, could lead to isolated pockets of individual fluent speakers.


We cannot.

A language dies when nobody learns it as their first language. The factors leading to this are generally social and cultural ones: maybe it becomes more prestigious to speak Spanish than Q'anjob'al, so Q'anjob'al is used less and less, or perhaps the government makes it illegal to speak Dyirbal so it never gets passed on.

Could a language die out just because its structure was no longer useful? It's possible for parts to die out: all of Latin's ablative inflections are dead and gone, for example. But the language as a whole lives on; there's an unbroken line of transmission between Cicero's Latin and modern Italian.

Languages are constantly changing under a strong evolutionary pressure, adapting to be as useful as possible for communication. If part of a language's structure is making communication harder instead of easier, that part will quickly wither and die. But a community won't go from speaking one language to zero: having any language is better than none. Language death only happens when social factors bring in competition.

  • Could a language die out just because its structure was no longer useful? I didn't really mean that, perhaps my question wasn't clear. I meant if we take a sample of dead languages, could we see something common to all of them grammar-wise? Maybe they were becoming more and more simplified or something like that? I understand that it's ultimately the social factors that are going to determine languages destiny. – lmc Jun 9 '19 at 9:27
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    Ah. In that case, the answer is a definite no. Languages of all kinds have died, but never in any known case has this been as a result of anything grammatical in the language. It's entirely a social phenomenon. – jlawler Jun 9 '19 at 13:59
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    I don't think @lmc necessarily means "as the result" of grammar phenomena: it could be the other way around, i.e. that when languages are marginalized and close to extinction, they tend to simplify their grammar because, say, fluent speakers are fewer and there are more speakers who use it only as a second language. I'm not saying this actually happen, just that any hypothetical grammar changes could be viewed as the cause or as an effect of approaching death. – LjL Jun 9 '19 at 18:10
  • @LjL Yes, thank you, that is exactly what I was trying to say, very inarticulately... – lmc Jun 9 '19 at 19:00

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