In Forbes, Tim Worstall talks about a recent paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society which notes that minority languages are at greater threat of extinction as the speakers of that language experience economic prosperity:
Here’s an interesting little economic finding: the extinction of minority languages seems to be largely driven by economic growth and success. It’s perhaps not one of those explanations that we would immediately think of but once it has been brought to our attention it seems obvious enough given what is actually economic growth. In terms of public policy this perhaps means that we shouldn’t worry too much about languages disappearing: because that is a signal that economic development is happening, people are becoming less poor. But people ceasing to use a language because it no longer fits their needs is one thing: we should still study, analyse and record those languages as they’re all part of our shared human experience.
The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and can be found here:
By contrast, recent speaker declines have mainly occurred at high latitudes and are strongly linked to high economic growth. Threatened languages are numerous in the tropics, the Himalayas and northwestern North America. These results indicate that small-population languages remaining in economically developed regions are seriously threatened by continued speaker declines. However, risks of future language losses are especially high in the tropics and in the Himalayas, as these regions harbour many small-population languages and are undergoing rapid economic growth.
Worth thinking through the different types of economic growth that we traditionally identify. The first is Malthusian growth. Here an advance in technology (say, a new, higher productivity, farming method) leads to there being more resources to support the new generation. More of them survive to then have their own children and the population increases. At some point in the future living standards return to where they were given that larger population. This is a reasonable description of near all economic growth before 1750 or so (and made the Rev. Malthus correct in his gloomy predictions about economic growth for pretty much all of history before he sat down to write had indeed been like this). Malthusian growth is likely to increase the population speaking whatever language it is that that society speaks. For the obvious reason that the growth is morphing into more people to speak that language.
The second form of growth is Smithian growth. Here, growth is coming from the division and specialisation of labour and the resultant trade in the increased production this enables. Almost by definition this requires that the network of people that one is trading with, dividing labour with, expands. To the point that one is, at some point, going to start doing so with people outside one’s clan, tribe or language. The cooperation of trade requires that there be some ability to converse and therefore there’s pressure to adopt some language which is mutually compatible. As large groups meet large groups then we might find some synthesis of language going on: as say English is an obvious synthesis of Romance and Germanic languages. Where small groups are meeting larger and trading with them then we’re more likely to see the adoption of the larger group language and the extinction of the smaller.