Languages on the Brink

When you hear the word “endangered,” you probably think of fluffy pandas or snow leopard cubs. But did you know that there are endangered languages too? And just as languages can become endangered, they can, unfortunately, become extinct too.

Humans have been around for a while, so it’s hard to determine just how many extinct languages there are. Some experts say there are close to a quarter-million extinct languages, but we only know 573 of them.

The National Geographic Society reports that there are close to 7,000 languages in use around the world. However, only 359 are globally spoken by millions of people. In short, 94% of the world speaks 6% of the languages available, and 6% use 94% of the languages.

Because most people in the world only speak a handful of languages, we lose another language approximately every two weeks.

Languages Classifications

Just like there are classifications for endangered animals, there are classifications for languages too.

  • Vulnerable: Most children speak the language, but only in specific circumstances, like being at home with their parents.
  • Endangered: Children no longer use their parent’s language as their first language.
  • Severely Endangered: The language is only spoken among elders in the community and is not taught to younger children at all.
  • Critical: The language is rarely used by any members of the community.
  • Dead: There are no more speakers who learned the language from their community, but the language lives on in some form.
  • Extinct: There are no speakers of the language at all.

 

We’ll highlight a few of the languages in this article, but feel free to check out UNESCO’s complete list here.

 

Vulnerable Languages

These languages are still used in small pockets of the world. As suggested by their classification, these languages have the best chance of being saved.

Vulnerable languages include:

  • Sicilian
  • Belarusian
  • Scots
  • West Flemish
  • Eastern Slovak
  • Welsh
  • Phula (China)
  • Embera (Colombia)

 

Endangered Languages

Endangered languages are those that will likely become extinct once the current generation of native speakers dies out. While it’s possible for these languages to be pulled back from extinction, it’s likely that they will still end up as dead languages.

Endangered languages include:

  • Romani
  • Yiddish (Eastern/Ashkenazi Jewish dialect)
  • Cherokee (Oklahoma)
  • Moroccan Judeo-Arabic
  • Pontic Greek
  • Quichua (Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, and Chimborazo)
  • Western Armenian

 

Dead Languages

Although the native speakers of dead languages are gone, there are still people who keep the language alive in some form.

Examples of dead languages include:

  • Latin (still offered in colleges and churches around the world)
  • Sanskrit (Indian language that is deeply connected with Indian literature and was considered the “language of god”)
  • Coptic (Egypt language known as the first language of Christianity and is a combo of Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Hieratic languages)
  • Biblical Hebrew (different than modern Hebrew and much easier to tackle with only about 8,000 words)
  • Ancient Greek (the alphabet is kept alive by sororities and fraternities in America)
  • Akkadian (used to study ancient Mesopotamia and Cuneiform)

 

Extinct Languages

Extinct languages no longer have any speakers. These are generally the dialects of small communities, so they are no longer used in any form.

Extinct languages include:

  • Eyak (Alaska)
  • Susquehannock (Iroquois)
  • Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (Massachusetts)
  • Huitoto (Brazil)
  • Kw’adza (Tanzania)
  • Mlahso (Syria and Turkey)
  • Old Prussian

Why do Languages become Endangered, Dead and Extinct?

There are several reasons why a language can end up on the endangered list. Languages die out because they become less popular.

We know that sounds like some middle school lunchroom drama. But most of the time, languages lose popularity because the native speakers transition into speaking a different version of the old dialect or a different language altogether.

Take Latin, for example. Latin became a dead language because it splintered off into Italian, Spanish, French and other languages.

Some languages simply evolved over time, like English and Greek. Old English sounds more like modern German, and modern Greek looks and sounds very different from Ancient Greek.

Other languages become endangered or extinct for more sinister reasons. Foreign invaders may force the native speakers to learn their language and assimilate to their culture. This occurred with many native North American tribes.

Genocide has also played a role in the extinction of languages because killing all the members of a community means killing their language too. This happened when Europeans took over Tasmania in the early 1800s.

Losing languages is a serious matter because it affects our ability to understand the various rich cultures of our world. We can’t stop all languages from dying, but we can prevent them from becoming completely extinct through better documentation, education, and giving younger people easier access to learn them and carry them forward.

Do you speak an endangered language or have further insights on how we can work together to keep vulnerable languages alive? Please reach out to us at InterThoughts@interecho.com.

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