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2,500 Languages Endangered

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 24, 2009 5 Comments

Last Thursday, UNESCO unveiled the new (online) Atlas of World Languages, claiming that 2,500 (36%) of the 6,900 languages spoken worldwide are endangered. The top three countries facing the loss of the most languages are: 1. India (with 196 endangered languages); 2. The United States (with 192); and Indonesia (with 147).

Nearly 200 languages have less than 10 surviving speakers. Of those, the Guardian, UK, provides a list of languages that only have one surviving speaker:

1. Wintu-Nomlaki: A language divided into two main dialects – that of the Wintu people and Nomlaki people, both from the western Sacramento Valley in northern California. Although only one fluent speaker is recorded, there are several ‘semi-speakers’ thanks to the language’s use in traditional stories.
2. Livonian: 30,000 people spoke the language of the province of Livonia in the 13th century and, although speakers diminished over the years, there were still many of them until the second world war and its aftermath. Since Latvian independence there have been efforts to revitalise it.
3. Yahgan: Cristina Calderon of Ukika village on Chile’s Navarino Island is the last speaker of the indigenous tongue of the Yagan people, but there is renewed interest in reviving the language. Yahgan was among the first South American languages to be recorded by European explorers and missionaries.
4. Kaixna: The only known living speaker of the language is reported by Unesco to be Raimundo Avelino, 78. The language of the 200-strong Kaixana people, who hail originally from a village near the banks of the river Japura in Brazil, has largely been replaced by Portuguese.

Why are so many languages endangered? Editor in Chief Christopher Moseley says that “It would be naïve and oversimplifying to say that the big ex-colonial languages, English or French or Spanish, are the killers, and all smaller languages are the victims…It is not like that; there is a subtle interplay of forces, and this atlas will help ordinary people to understand those forces better.” Check it out here.

And a mapping of endangered languages in India (note the clustering):


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5 Responses to “2,500 Languages Endangered”

  1. Youki on: 24 February 2009 at 2:08 am

    I wonder if the day will come when we can neurologically scan a person’s brain for their entire language facility. The same way science fiction has dealt with bringing back extinct species based on DNA mapping/genetic engineering procedures, will the day come when we can extract all linguistic data from preserved brains? Seems centuries away, if it’s even possible.

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 24 February 2009 at 10:14 am

    What an interesting thought, Youki! 🙂 I wonder if they’ll be able to determine how many languages, which ones, and determine levels of proficiency as well. Heh.

  3. daveski on: 24 February 2009 at 10:03 pm

    It’s overwhelming to look at the numbers, look at the map. It makes me think about the power of visualizations and how often we (in U.S. public schools) grow up shading in nation-states with one color that stands in for one national language, one uniform population, etc. It’s striking how many endangered languages there must be in the ‘borderlands’ between nations, between states, in the interstices between metropolises (what’s the plural of metropolis anyway?).

    And this makes me wonder what if the tables were inverted on the visualizations, and it were languages that provided the frame that nations had to fit into, languages were the frame of reference to talk about the ‘health’ and ‘vitality’ of nations…

  4. Usree Bhattacharya on: 24 February 2009 at 11:31 pm

    very thought-provoking comments, dave.

    wow. i LOVE your last point about inverting the visualizations. the mind boggles….i am going to think more about that.

  5. daveski on: 25 February 2009 at 10:33 pm

    I heard about this program that was supposed to have aired at 8pm tonight (Feb. 25) on NPR, 88.5 in the Bay Area, on the Alutiiq peoples’ revitalization efforts in Kodiak, Alaska: http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R902252000

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