Language is inarguably one of if not the most essential of the building blocks of communication. It is no surprise that the utterance of a child’s first word is a hallmark moment in its life. It is through language that we express our feelings and needs, ask questions, do business and most importantly, better interpret and interact with our vast world.
Jennifer is a Berlin-based freelance copywriter. She loves writing about food, language, technology, and culture.
Similar to civilizations, languages can both surface and then vanish. Among the most well-documented so-called dead languages are Ancient Greek and Latin which, no longer spoken, can be found etched on old monuments and in ancient texts. Though dead, their influence was powerful for modern Greek stemmed from Ancient Greek while Latin gave birth to the “Romance” languages – Italian, Spanish and French. The same could be said for modern English and its influence by Old English and Middle English.
But what can be said for those which disappear without a trace or any remarkable influence, who go from prevalent usage to outright extinction?
You may be surprised to hear that there are currently over 2,800 endangered languages currently in this cycle.
According to language research center Ethnologue, 7,117 languages are spoken in today’s world. Of those, 40% are endangered. And oftentimes, these languages maintain less than 1,000 speakers. Only 23 of the 7,117 languages spoken today are by more than half of the world’s population.
Often fascinating and historical, endangered languages range from Wiradjuri, one of the many indigenous languages of Australia with merely 30 speakers to Pipil (also known as Nawat) of El Salvador, with 500 speakers. Of Nafusi, a Berber language spoken in Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, there remain 140,000 speakers. In Germany, only 10,000 speakers of North Frisian remain, while indigenous languages in the US are quickly disappearing, such as Ojibwe, which has less than 9,000 speakers.
Languages may become endangered for a number of reasons. It is frequently a result of immigration and assimilation. They may not as many opportunities to speak the language. They may also prefer their children focus on learning the general language spoken in the respective country. And unfortunately, in some places, individuals are forbidden to speak minority languages. This is slowly how languages can be left with only one native speaker and unless individuals are willing to learn about and pass on the knowledge of these languages, they will become extinct.
But not all is lost. There is an increasing realization of just how important all language is, especially those on their way out. One project is Wikitongues, a non-profit created to preserve, promote and pass on languages to future generations. It features self-submitted videos of individuals all around the world speaking in their respective languages. Many of these individuals reside in New York City, the most linguistically diverse city in the world with over 800 languages spoken.
Another project is the Endangered Language Alliance, a non-profit also dedicated to documenting and supporting linguistic diversity and endangered languages.
It does not end with these non-profits. Developing an awareness of the plight of these languages and observing their vast diversity is better than letting them fade into oblivion. Here’s to hoping they survive, for they are living history, a present-day link to past civilizations and cultures.