- Why do certain languages become threatened over time?
- How are languages identified as endangered?
- Which languages are currently endangered?
- Which languages are now completely extinct?
- Why does it matter and what can be done to protect endangered languages?
- Further reading
Why do certain languages become threatened over time?
An endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling out of use as its speakers die out or shift to speaking another language. Although languages have always become extinct throughout human history, they are currently disappearing at an accelerated rate by the processes of globalisation and neocolonialism, and the economically powerful languages now dominate other languages. The world language hierarchy shown below (adapted from Graddol, 1997) shows how the world’s languages are structured, and there is a trend of language shift towards the dominant languages with higher numbers of speakers worldwide. Language shift can be the result of linguicide in which ethnic group members no longer learn their heritage language as their first language, which currently threatens many local vernacular languages.
According to the Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, there are four main types of causes of language endangerment. The first are causes that put the population who speak the languages in physical danger, such as natural disasters, famine and disease and war and genocide. Then there are those causes which prevent or discourage speakers from using a language, such as political repression and cultural/political/economic marginalisation/hegemony.
How are languages identified as endangered?
UNESCO operates with four levels of language endangerment beyond "safe" (not endangered), based on intergenerational transfer: "vulnerable" (not spoken by children outside the home), "definitely endangered" (children not speaking), "severely endangered" (only spoken by the oldest generations), and "critically endangered" (spoken by few members of the oldest generation, often semi-speakers).
Which languages are currently endangered?
UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger categorises 2,473 languages into five levels of endangerment: vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct. Some examples of well-known vulnerable and endangered languages are South Italian, Sicilian, Low Saxon, Belarusian, Lombard, Romani and Yiddish (Israel). The full UNESCO list of endangered languages is available here.
Which languages are now completely extinct?
More than 200 languages have become extinct around the world over the last three generations. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger includes languages which became extinct in the last half century or so. By extinct, it is meant that the language is no longer the first tongue that infants learn in their homes, and that the last speaker who did learn the language in that way has passed on within the last five decades. It may be possible to revive extinct languages, provided that there is adequate documentation and a strong motivation within the ethnic community. Some examples of languages which have recently become extinct are Akkala Saami (Russian Federation), Aasax (Tanzania), Ubyh (Turkey) and Eyak (United States, Alaska).
Why does it matter?
Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.
For speaker communities, languages are the creations and the vectors of tradition. They support cultural identity and are an essential part of a community’s heritage. This poem by Evenki poet, Alitet Nemtushkin, summarises the feelings and the apprehension of speakers of endangered languages:
If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?
If I forget the smell of the earth
And do not serve it well
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?
How can I believe the foolish idea
That my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last words
Were in Evenki?
(From UNESCO website)
What can be done to help protect endangered languages?
The most important thing that can be done to keep a language from disappearing is to create favourable conditions for its speakers to speak the language and teach it to their children. This often requires national policies that recognise and protect minority languages, education systems that promote mother-tongue instruction, and creative collaboration between community members and linguists to develop a writing system and introduce formal instruction in the language. Since the most crucial factor is the attitude of the speaker community toward its own language, it is essential to create a social and political environment that encourages multilingualism and respect for minority languages so that speaking such a language is an asset rather than a liability. Some languages now have so few speakers that they cannot be maintained, but linguists can, if the community so wishes, record as much of the language as possible so that it does not disappear without a trace.
Information on endangered and extinct languages is available from the UNESCO website here, or from numerous organisations that work for linguistic conservation such as the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity and the Endangered Language Alliance. There are also some recommended books at the bottom of this post.