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Encyclopedia > Endangered language

An endangered language is a language with so few surviving speakers that it is in danger of falling out of use. If it loses all of its native speakers, it becomes an extinct language. An extinct language (also called a dead language) is a language which no longer has any native speakers. ...


Identifying endangered languages

While there is no definite threshold for identifying a language as endangered, three main criteria are used as guidelines:

  1. The number of speakers currently living.
  2. The mean age of native and/or fluent speakers.
  3. The percentage of the youngest generation acquiring fluency with the language in question.

Some languages, such as those in Indonesia, may have tens of thousands of speakers but be endangered because children are no longer learning them, and speakers are in the process of shifting to using the national language Indonesian (or a local Malay variety) in place of local languages. This article or section is in need of attention from an expert on the subject. ... The Malay language (Malay: Bahasa Melayu; Jawi script: بهاس ملايو), is an Austronesian language spoken by the Malay people who reside in the Malay Peninsula, southern Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, central eastern Sumatra, the Riau islands, parts of the coast of Borneo and even in the Netherlands[1]. It is an official...

In contrast, a language with only 100 speakers might be considered very much alive if it is the primary language of a community, and is the first (or only) language of all children in that community (most of Andaman languages, actually spoken). Ethnolinguistic map of the precolonial Andaman Islands (drawn 1902) The Andamanese languages form a proposed language family spoken by the Andamanese peoples of the Andaman Islands, a union territory of India. ...

Debate over endangered languages

Some linguists (among them, Michael Krauss and Stephen Wurm) argue that at least 3,000 of the world's 6,000-7,000 languages are liable to be lost before the year 2100. There are two basic views as to the implications of this.

One view holds that this is a problem and the extinction of languages should be prevented, even at significant cost. A number of reasons are cited, including:

  • an enormous number of languages represents a vast, largely unmapped terrain on which linguists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers can chart the full capabilities and limits of the mind;
  • languages embody unique local knowledge of cultures and natural systems in the regions in which they are spoken and such diversity is essential for promoting scientific and technological progress since it is the interaction of ideas that is one of the major generators of human invention; and
  • languages serve as evidence for understanding human history (see NSF article on endangered languages).

The view at the other end of spectrum is that this is not a problem and in fact should be encouraged. Fewer languages means better and clearer communications among the majority of speakers. The economic cost of maintaining myriad separate languages, and their translator caretakers, is enormous. For instance, a company could save a lot of money designing and marketing a product in one language, and with one set of instructions. The extremist position of this view is that all languages should give way to one single language, thereby creating the greatest economic efficiency possible by utterly avoiding all transaction costs associated with linguistic differences. It is unclear whether such a monolingual culture would be stable, because it is not certain in what way and extent changes in technology will effect the forces that originally drove the development of the huge range of different languages from the theoretical one 'proto-world' language (for example, if linguistic divergence requires isolation, massively accessible world-wide communication will work against the process). Some argue that a unified language is undesirable, saying that such a culture would also be frozen in other ways, and would not encourage other forms of intellectual diversity and change that such diversity promotes.

(There also exist highly original syntheses of these positions. For example, the exotic possibility that highly available and capable translation technologies could lead to a world where nobody spoke the same language but everyone understood each other anyway.)

Members of communities where endangered languages are spoken sometimes have views on these issues that surprise those at either end of this spectrum. On the one hand, communities can actively resist promotion of their own minority language, since children educated in the language are perceived to be at an economic or social disadvantage, when compared to children educated in a more dominant national or trade language. This is sometimes the case in countries like China or Indonesia, which have a national lingua franca, as well as many minority languages. On the other hand, members of very small linguistic communities sometimes express strong appreciation for the language as a means of communication as compared with other available languages, even in the face of disagreement from others from outside the community who are also familiar with it. Eg: Konkani spoken in south India - Konkanis who migrated to Kerala from their original habitat Goa 400 years back due to Portuguese attack today speak two dialects of Konkani, Malayalam, national language Hindi & English. English & Hindi are used to communicate with non malayalees, Malayalam with locals, one variant of Konkani for informal talks & the other variant (this variant they do not teach anybody else) for conveying secret messages (& this made them the best businessmen in India) among members of the community. This is how both variants of Konkani survived for 3 centuries among a few thousand speakers amidst & freely interacting with 30 million malayalees. Lingua franca, literally Frankish language in Italian, was originally a mixed language consisting largely of Italian plus a vocabulary drawn from Turkish, Persian, French, Greek and Arabic and used for communication throughout the Middle East. ... , Kerala ( ; Malayalam: കേരളം; ) is a state on the Malabar Coast of southwestern India. ... , Goa   (Konkani: गोंय goṃya; Marathi: govā; Portuguese: ) is Indias smallest state in terms of area and the fourth smallest in terms of population (after Sikkim, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh). ...

Reviving endangered languages

Once a language is determined to be endangered, there are two basic steps that need to be taken in order to stabilize or rescue the language. The first is language documentation and the second is language revitalization. Language documentation is the process by which a language is described in terms of its linguistics and its collected oral and textual literatures. ... Language revival is the revival, by governments, political authorities, or enthusiasts, to recover the spoken use of a language that is no longer spoken or learned at home. ...

Language documentation is the process by which the language is documented in terms of its grammar, its lexicon, and its oral traditions (e.g. stories, songs, religious texts).

Language revitalization is the process by which a language community through political, community, and educational means attempts to increase the number of active speakers of the endangered language. This process is also sometimes referred to as language revival or reversing language shift. // Language revival is the revival, by governments, political authorities, or enthusiasts, to recover the spoken use of a language that is no longer spoken or is endangered. ... This article or section does not cite its references or sources. ...

Examples of endangered languages

Main article: list of endangered languages A list of endangered languages (with fewer than 1000 speakers or in rapid decline). ...

In addition, nearly all of the spoken Native American languages in the U.S. and Canada are endangered. These include: The Ainu language (Ainu: , aynu itak; Japanese: ainu-go) is spoken by the Ainu ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō. It was once spoken in the Kurile Islands, the northern part of HonshÅ«, and the southern half of Sakhalin. ... Breton (Brezhoneg) is a Celtic language spoken by some of the inhabitants of Brittany (Breizh) in France. ... Cajun French is a dialect of the French language, spoken primarily in the American state of Louisiana. ... The term Curonian language (Latvian: kurÅ¡u valoda; Lithuanian: kurÅ¡ių kalba) may refer to two different, but genetically related Baltic languages. ... The Defaka (sometimes called Afakani) are a small ethnic group of south-western Nigeria, numbering less than a thousand people. ... The Ijoid languages are spoken by the Ịjọ [Ijaw] and the Defaka (Afakani) of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, totalling about 10 million. ... Istro-Romanian is a Romance language used in a few villages in the peninsula of Istria, on the northern part of the Adriatic Sea, in Croatia. ... Livonian (LÄ«võ kēļ) belongs to the Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages. ... Luxembourgish (Luxembourgish: Lëtzebuergesch, French: , German: , Walloon: ), also spelled Luxemburgish, is a West Germanic language spoken in Luxembourg. ... The Manchu language is a Tungusic language spoken by Manchus in Manchuria; it is the language of the Manchu, though now most Manchus speak Mandarin Chinese and there are fewer than 70 native speakers of Manchu out of a total of nearly 10 million ethnic Manchus. ... Māori (or Maori) is a language spoken by the native peoples of New Zealand and the Cook Islands. ... Sami is a general name for a group of Uralic languages spoken in parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and extreme northwestern Russia, in Northern Europe. ... The Sorbian languages are classified under the West Slavic branch of the Indo-European languages. ... Wymysorys or Wilamowicean (WymysöryÅ›) is a Central German dialect spoken in the small town of Wilamowice (Wymysoj in Wymysorys), on the border between Silesia and Lesser Poland. ... An independent origin and development of writing is counted among the many achievements and innovations of pre-Columbian American cultures. ...

For some examples of endangered languages that recently became extinct, see Extinct language: Recently extinct languages The Catawba (also known as Issa or Esaw) are a tribe of Native Americans that traditionally lived in the Southeast United States, along the border between North and South Carolina. ... Lakota (also Lakhota, Teton, Teton Sioux) is the largest of the three languages of the Sioux, of the Siouan family. ... The Cowlitz language is a member of the Tsamosan (Olympic) branch of the Coast Salish family of Salishan languages. ... Eyak is a moribund Na-Dené language that was historically spoken in southcentral Alaska, near the mouth of the Copper River. ... Abenaki (also Abnaki) is the cover term for a complex of dialects of one of the Eastern Algonquian languages, originally spoken in what is now Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. ... Elderly Klamath woman by Edward S. Curtis, 1924 A Klamath man; a full image is available here This article is about a Native American tribe. ... Lipan Apache are also known as Nde buffalo hunters, called by anthropologists and historians for many years as Eastern Apache, Apache de los Llanos, Lipan, Ipande, and other names. ... The Serrano language is a language in the Uto-Aztecan family spoken by the Serrano people of Southern California. ... Tagish is an endangered Northern Athabaskan language spoken by the Tagish people in the Yukon Territory in Canada. ... An extinct language (also called a dead language) is a language which no longer has any native speakers. ...

See also

A list of endangered languages (with fewer than 1000 speakers or in rapid decline). ... // Language revival is the revival, by governments, political authorities, or enthusiasts, to recover the spoken use of a language that is no longer spoken or is endangered. ... The Language Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that provides language revitalization support to the worlds endangered languages, restoring them to health and stability, and safeguarding them for future generations. ... The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to develop a contemporary version of the historic Rosetta Stone to last from 2000 to 2100. ... The Endangered Language Fund is a small non-profit organization based in New Haven, Connecticut. ... SIL International is a worldwide non-profit evangelical Christian organization whose main purpose is to study, develop and document lesser-known languages in order to expand linguistic knowledge, promote literacy and aid minority language development. ... The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights is a document signed by Unesco, the PEN Clubs, and several non-governmental organizations in 1996 to support linguistic rights, especially those of endangered languages. ... An extinct language (also called a dead language) is a language which no longer has any native speakers. ... This article or section does not cite its references or sources. ... Many countries have a language policy designed to favour or discourage the use of a particular language or set of languages. ...

External links


see also the large bibliography: Language death: Bibliography.
  • Abley, Mark. (2003). Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. London: Heinemann
  • Campbell, Lyle; & Mithun, Marianne (Eds.). (1979). The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Evans, Nicholas. (2001). The last speaker is dead - long live the last speaker! In Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff, eds. Linguistic Field Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 250-281.
  • Hale, Kenneth; Krauss, Michael; Watahomigie, Lucille J.; Yamamoto, Akira Y.; Craig, Colette; Jeanne, LaVerne M. et al. (1992). Endangered languages. Language, 68 (1), 1-42.
  • Harrison, K. David. (2007) When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-518192-1.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Thieberger. (2006). Keeping track of language endangerment in Australia. Denis Cunningham, David Ingram and Kenneth Sumbuk (eds). Language Diversity in the Pacific: Endangerment and Survival. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters. 54-84.
  • McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Thieberger. (2001). State of Indigenous languages in Australia - 2001 (PDF), Australia State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Natural and Cultural Heritage), Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (Ed.). (1973). Linguistics in North America (parts 1 & 2). Current trends in linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hague: Mouton. (Reprinted as Sebeok 1976).
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-3468-0.

  Results from FactBites:
yourDictionary.com ┬Ľ Endangered Language Initiative┬Ľ What is an Endangered Language? (951 words)
It is a language spoken by a minority of people in the nation and for that reason is held in low esteem, causing its speakers to avoid using it or passing it on to their children.
Because it is not useful in the society, perhaps even a social liability, an endangered language is not passed on by parents to their children.
Language is the most efficient means of transmitting a culture, and it is the owners of that culture that lose the most when a language dies.
Endangered Language (873 words)
Endangered languages are languages that are on the brink of extinction, much like endangered species of plants or animals.
For languages that can't be saved, it is still possible to document them for scientific purposes and for the sake of future generations who might want to study or even revive them.
And the wholesale loss of languages that we face today will greatly restrict how much we can learn about human cognition, the nature of language, and language acquisition at a time when we are just beginning to understand these areas.
  More results at FactBites »



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