An endangered language is one that is likely to entirely cease being spoken within a few generations. This kind of language death is not the same as the gradual change undergone by “dead” ancient languages like Latin which did not suddenly cease to be spoken, but that slowly evolved into something new. In the case of Latin, it evolved into the modern romance languages like French and Italian.
Language extinction occurs as speakers of minority languages come under economic, social, and/or political pressure to adopt the majority language being spoken around them (Woodbury 2000). The pressure exerted by major world languages is evidenced by the fact that 50% of the world’s population speak one of the top 12 world languages (Ostler 2005:526). A language becomes extinct when all the members of the new generation have adopted the language of the outside majority and the last older generation speaker of the minority language has died.
How Many languages are endangered?
Some linguists estimate that from 1490 to 1990 one half of the world’s languages became extinct. During this present century, perhaps another half or more of the world’s languages will become extinct (Mesthrie, et. al. 2000:273), although estimates as to how many languages are currently endangered vary as shown in the following quotes:
- “Nearly half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages are in danger of disappearing in the near future.” (Wurm 2001)
- “516 of the (6,912) languages listed in the Ethnologue are classified as nearly extinct. They are classified in this way when ‘only a few elderly speakers are still living.’” (Gordon 2005)
- “The coming century will see either the death or doom of 90% of mankind’s languages”. (Krauss 1992:7)
What are the indicators that a language is endangered?
A number of different indicators of language endangerment have been advanced. UNESCO (2003) uses these indicators:
• relative position on the urban-rural continuum;
• domains in which the language is used;
• frequency and type of code switching;
• population and group dynamics;
• distribution of speakers within their own social networks;
• social outlook regarding and within the speech community;
• language prestige; and
• access to a stable and acceptable economic base.
SIL uses these criteria (Lanweeder 2000):
• intergenerational language transmission;
• absolute number of speakers;
• proportion of speakers within the total population;
• trends in existing language domains (areas of use);
• response to new domains and media;
• materials for language education and literacy;
• governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, including official status and use;
• community members’ attitudes toward their own language;
• amount and quality of documentation.
Why does it matter?
When a language dies, it has a profound effect on the community who spoke that language. They loose one of the most important aspects of their identity, as well as one of the primary means through which their culture is preserved. This could be the beginning of the end of their identity as a distinct people. This is not just a loss for them, but it is a loss for all of us. It is a loss to science, since we no longer have the opportunity to study a language which could have added to our knowledge of how language and the human mind work. But perhaps more importantly, it is a loss of part of the richness, beauty and mystery of our collective humanity- something that can’t be quantified or measured by science.
What can be done?
• Change government policy on minority languages to promote recognition, education, and publication in those languages.
• Economic development to reduce migration out of traditional communities.
• Use of minority languages in elementary education.
• Facilitate adult education in minority languages through training of teachers and development of instructional media.
• Document the language before it dies so that the possibility of reviving it exists.
- Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.
- Krauss, M. 1992. “The world’s languages in crisis”. Language 68, 4-10.
- Lanweeder, Lynn M. 2000. “Indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality”. Notes on sociolinguistics 5.1:5-22. Online: http://www.sil.org/sociolx/ndg-lg-indicators.html
- Mesthrie, Rajend, Joan Swann, Andrea Deumert, and William Leap. 2000. Introducing sociolinguistics. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
- Ostler, Nicholas. 2005. Empires of the word. New York: HarperCollins.
- Woodbury, Anthony C. 2000. What is an endangered language? Washington, DC: Linguistic Society of America. Online: http://www.lsadc.org/info/ling-faqs-endanger.cfm.
- Wurm, Stephen. 2001. Atlas of the world’s languages in danger of disappearing. Paris: UNESCO Publishing. Online: http://www.unesco.org/webworld/babel/atlas.
- UNESCO. 2003. “International expert meeting on UNESCO programme: Safeguarding of the endangered languages”. Online: http://www.unesco.org/culture/heritage/intangible/meetings/paris_march2003.shtml