The Sordid Story Behind the Mass Extinction of Languages

Hosted by

Lena Herzog Photo courtesy of the artist

“Every two weeks the world loses a language. Out of approximately 7,000 languages spoken on earth today, at least half will have fallen silent by the end of this century,” artist Lena Herzog told an audience at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. In a world in which English is increasingly dominating global conversations and cultures, every part of that statement will seem staggering: the vast diversity, the rapid loss, the impending extinction. Perhaps more surprising, however, are the reasons this mass linguistic disappearance is happening. As Herzog explains in her speech, which she reads aloud in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” this extinction is no accident but rather the outcome of a human history in which concentrated hegemonic powers required the erasure of any form of communication that precluded their understanding and, crucially, their control.

[Power] has also always known that it would be difficult, if not nearly impossible,” reads Herzog, “to control various minority populations and tribes because of the language and cultural barrier. Thus it has obliterated these other languages as much as it could, either by simple genocide or by squeezing other cultures out, absorbing them and vanishing them, sometimes intentionally, mostly, as a by-product of conquest, cultural absorption, or domination.

“The sophistication in messaging in [the United States] is unparalleled by anything any authoritarian or totalitarian state could have ever created,” she continues.

This language genocide is at the heart of the Russian-American artist’s project “Last Whispers,” an immersive “oratorio” or audiovisual installation that has also branched out into virtual reality. The work, which collects clips from dead or dying languages recorded by linguists around the world and filed in international archives, has been shown in London, U.K, as well as New York, NY and most recently Los Angeles, Cali., at the Ford Theater, with planned exhibitions in many other global cities. In a poetic, potent effort, Herzog shows us what the world has already lost or is on the verge of losing, some of which you can see in the video clip below, and explains that more than words are at stake.

“Humanity is losing the knowledge, the variety of worldviews, and the cosmologies that indigenous communities have for centuries encoded in these languages and cultures. Let there be no doubt: this is a mass extinction,” says Herzog.

In conversation with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer, Herzog emphasizes how the “variousness of our human mind” is one of the “most optimistic” things about our species, and yet the eradication of languages by dominant powers imposes monolithic conformity on us all, pushing us to speak 30 dominant languages, and, primarily, English. Alarmingly, the dangers of this erasure, Scheer and Herzog agree, are immense. We don’t have to go far to see the results of this, as Scheer explains.

“For instance, right now we have this immigration crisis, and the way to fuel that crisis is to deny the humanity of the people called ‘immigrants,’’ says the Truthdig Editor in Chief. “And if you tune out their language [...], you’re denying that they had a history. If you deny they had a history, you’re denying their humanity. If you deny their humanity, you can imprison them, you can kill them, you can drown them---it doesn’t matter because they are not significant.”

Listen to the entire speech read by Herzog as well as the full discussion the visual artist has with Scheer on the harrowing effects of the linguistic mass extinction that “Last Whispers” aims to raise awareness about.



Joshua Scheer