Damin is even more fascinating semantically than it is phonologically. It has a vocabulary of less than 250 words. These words are extremely abstract, which is why the language is capable of expressing the same thoughts as almost any other language. For example, there are only two pronouns: one for any set that includes the speaker, and one for all sets that do not. Time is described with one word referring to the present moment, and another for all other points in time. There are also only two main verbs: one denoting all constructive actions, and one for destructive actions.
Today, Damin exists only on tape. Missionaries forbade the tribesmen from teaching it to the youths, and the last speaker died nearly thirty years ago. The tribe's "natural language", Lardil, is also facing extinction, due to the widespread usage of English. Damin and Lardil are representatives of a growing trend. Global media and the increasing ease of travel are contributing to factors like colonization and migration, and increasing the rate of language extinction. Experts predict that under the best of circumstances, roughly half of the world's 6900 or so languages will become extinct in the next 50-100 years.
But that's just a part of normal evolution, right? Languages change and die all the time. This is a valid counter-argument to artificial efforts keeping languages "pure" and free from foreign influence. The French are famous for their forceful stance in protecting their language – which is not even remotely threatened by extinction – from the types of changes it has undergone since it evolved from Vulgar Latin. These efforts are misguided. Loan words aren't destroying French; they are making it richer and more robust.
Actual endangered languages are spoken by people representing marginalized cultures in societies undergoing radical change. Often suffering from poverty and discrimination, they harbor wisdom and knowledge acquired during thousands of years of human survival. In the spring 2000 issue of Whole Earth magazine, Kenneth Hale said "The loss of Damin (…) amounts to the loss of a tradition of semantic relations comparable to that embodied in the very best thesaurus, or in the entire output of the anthropological tradition of componential analysis of the fifties and sixties." To assume that we have nothing to learn from the "other" half of languages in the world, would represent the same kind of ignorance as figuring that we probably don't need all those plants in the rainforest for anything.
As part of our mission to make the world's information universally accessible and useful, we at Google should be doing something proactive to preserve one of humanity's greatest creative achievements – our astonishing variety of languages. We have an opportunity to support the creation of searchable online databases for language protection initiatives around the world. We can facilitate unprecedented visibility and access for everyone – not just experts.
The emotional wisdom of a language dies with the last speakers, and the true home where language lives – in relationships, in the warmth and friction between humans – is destroyed. In cases where language death cannot be stopped, preservation makes it possible for future generations to revive language as a means of preserving identity and creating culture. This has already happened, for example in the case of Hebrew, Catalan, and Cornish. Our powerful Google brand can help raise awareness and appreciation of these efforts.
Language is not just words, or a means to sell online ads to more people. It is "a process of free creation", says Noam Chomsky. It is a representation of who we are at the most intimate level. It is us. To borrow the basic concepts of Damin, we – as part of a set that includes all of humanity – need to take constructive action now, to preserve information and culture for the future.