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What is the minimum population required to keep a language alive?

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Theoretically, there isn't a minimum population for a language to survive, because a speech community can theoretically be of any size. Even if the speech community dwindles to one person, that last person isn't going to stop transmitting his language if he isn't exposed to any other languages.

However, this isn't a practical case, because the last speakers of a language are going to be exposed to other languages. Speakers of any language, no matter what number of people speak it, will tend to gravitate towards more prestigious languages. This can happen to a language with any number of speakers; for example, speakers of Chinese who immigrate to the United States will tend to learn English, and eventually may stop transmitting Chinese to the next generation, because English has more prestige than Chinese in the United States.

But for a language to become extinct, all speakers would have to give up the language. This would usually happen in the case of minority languages whose speakers are all exposed to a more prestigious language (e.g. aboriginal languages spoken in a country with a different predominant language).

As for the actual number of speakers necessary in practice for a language to survive, I don't know what, if any, empirical data there is. But since you are looking specifically for the minimum, in optimal conditions there is none.

  • I think you have confused two different issues: survival and monolingualism. A language can survive even if all its speakers are multilingual. – fdb Aug 16 at 14:17
  • My question was mostly concerning small island minorities, who manage to keep their language: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gammalsvenskby – U3.1415926 Aug 16 at 14:45
  • @fdb I deleted the word "monolingual" since it was unnecessary, but it was only an example. Nothing else I wrote has to do with monolingualism (though monolingualism would certainly help a language to survive) – b a Aug 16 at 15:10
  • @U3.1415926 I don't think that would change the answer unless you are specifically looking for field data – b a Aug 16 at 15:11
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    @U3.1415926 But if that one person eventually has a child to whom he or she transmits the language and they don't assimilate with other language speakers, the language is still alive despite its small number of speakers – b a Aug 16 at 15:44
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Language transmission can occur in different ways. Generally, a language is learned inside a group social. So, theoretically, without considering external considerations (peer pressure, motivation, ...), it can be two persons at least a learner and a teacher without having necessarily a familial relationship; or two genitors who give birth to children and transmit their language. If this condition is met at each generation, so it can survive.

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The answer is zero.

Hebrew became extinct after around 200 and 400 CE and got revived in the 19th century.

There also are fluent Klingon speakers (the imaginary language spoken by the Klingons in Star Trek). Including some documented fluent Klingon kids.

  • The people in Star Trek who speak Klingon are the Klingons, not the Klingonese. – KRyan Aug 17 at 1:50
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    There was never a time between then and now that no one spoke Hebrew, since it was used for religious purposes. There were times that no one spoke it as a first language, but that would mean that 0 native speakers are necessary, not 0 speakers – b a Aug 17 at 17:42
  • @ba: What you say is incorrect insofar as I've learned and insofar as the references provided in the linked Wikipedia article to back this up are concerned. For several centuries Hebrew was a strictly literary language: some were able to read and write it but no one actually spoke it. It's a bit like Latin in this respect. And to the best of my knowledge modern Hebrew pronunciation is very much like modern Latin pronunciation: a best guess as to what it may have sounded like. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 17 at 18:13
  • Wikipedia doesn't say that Hebrew became extinct. It says "Hebrew had ceased to be an everyday spoken language ..." and "Mishnaic Hebrew extinct ... surviving as a liturgical language". The pronunciation of Modern Hebrew isn't a guess; it's the product of multiple living reading traditions (which still exist) that underwent sound changes just like every language does – b a Aug 17 at 19:00
  • @ba: "Wikipedia doesn't say that Hebrew became extinct." -- correct me if I'm wrong but that's basically what the references say. More specifically, they say that it became a literary language, which is what Latin is today -- which to the best of my knowledge is extinct, and no longer spoken except in esoteric spheres of latinists if that. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 17 at 21:19

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