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A Striking New Map of Endangered Languages

Submitted by on April 8, 2013 – 8:19 pm 13 Comments |  
Endangered_Languages

A striking map depicting endangered languages around the world can be found at the website of the Endangered Languages Project (ELP), the public portal of the Endangered Languages Catalogue (ELCat) helping raise awareness of and gathering data on endangered languages. This data has been compiled by linguistic research teams at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and Eastern Michigan University in a project supported by a National Science Foundation grant. The catalogue contains comprehensive up-to-date information on all languages considered to be in danger, including the number of speakers, the age of the youngest speakers and the location of each language; the genetic affiliation to a linguistic family for every language; and an account of the documentation and data for all languages in the database. The ELP is an initiative of the newly formed Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, a coalition of international linguistic and cultural organizations, and Google. The Rosetta Project and PanLex Project at The Long Now Foundation are also members of the Alliance. But anyone involved with endangered languages is invited to contribute to the database.

In order to determine whether a language is at risk, ELCat has developed the Language Endangerment Scale, which is different from the scale newly developed by the Ethnologue, a well-established comprehensive language catalogue for basic information of all living languages. ELCat’s scale is different in that it has a smaller set of criteria, focusing exclusively on endangered languages, which serves the purpose of the Endangered Languages Catalogue. ELCAT’s Language Endangerment Scale assigns six different levels of endangerment to each language, ranging from 0–Safe to 5–Critically Endangered on the basis of four criteria:

  • Intergenerational Transmission (How old are the youngest speakers and is the language passed on to younger generations?)
  • Absolute number of speakers
  • Speaker number trends (Is the number of speakers declining, stable or increasing?)
  • Domains of use of the language (Is the language only used in certain (e.g. informal) contexts or for every domain in life from home to media, education and government?)

The findings shed new light on the issue of language loss. Earlier estimates predicted the death of 50-90% of the world’s languages by the end of the century; some claimed as well that one language goes extinct every two weeks. The prediction of a 90% languages loss by the end of the 21st century stems from a 1992 paper by Michael Krauss, professor emeritus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and expert on the indigenous Alaskan language Eyak, whose last native speaker passed away in 2008. Krauss arrived at this estimate based on the best available sources at that time. Over two decades later, ELCat’s much more comprehensive database suggests that Krauss’ figure was too high. Krauss may be correct for North America, Australia, and New Zealand, but on the global scale, as a total of only 3,176 languages (46% of all living languages) can considered endangered. Krauss’ lower estimate of 50%, however, seems on-target if endangered languages keep losing ground. The common estimation that a language dies out every 2 weeks must also be revised based on the new data. This figure has been repeated so often in it is hard to trace back to the source. ELCat’s new findings suggest that language death progresses at the rate of about one language in three months (Campbell et al. 2013). This estimate is based on the number of languages that we know have become extinct in the recent past rather than on estimates of how many languages might go extinct in the future. The new findings also show that the rate at which languages die out has highly accelerated in the last half century.

What is worse, the findings point out that since 1960 we have lost as much as 28 entire language families, which is even more devastating from the viewpoint of linguistic diversity. To compare this to biodiversity, extinction of a language may be paralleled to the extinction of an animal species, but the death of a whole language family would then equal the loss of a whole branch of the animal kingdom, for example all felines. Hundreds of language families that have gone extinct over the course of history, but the fact that 28 of them have died out over the relatively short time span of the last 50 years is symptomatic of the accelerated rate of language loss we are experiencing in recent times.

 

Sources:

Krauss, Michael E. 1992. The World’s Languages in Crisis. Language 68(1): 4-10.

Campbell, Lyle; Lee, Nala Huiying; Okura, Eve; Simpson, Sean; Ueki, Kaori. 2013. New Knowledge: Findings from the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (“ELCat”). 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation & Conservation.

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

    It’s a beautiful map, but as these maps always do, it has me wondering what a language is and what its value is. Am I wrong in suspecting that the large number of sign languages listed on the map are mostly of quite recent vintage? I have no doubt that the last speaker of Lushootseed will take with her an entire way of viewing the world, but will the last speaker of Hong Kong Sign Language, which could not have an existence that predates Esperanto. If some poor child is raised speaking Klingon, will we have lost a great treasure if he does not raise his children speaking it? Will the world, in fact, face some cultural loss if we do not choose to raise children speaking Klingon or Esperanto? Is it so terrible that speakers of Yiddish Sign Language have decided they might rather speak Hebrew Sign Language, or would it be so bad if speakers of American Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language decided they would be less linguistically divided than their speaking compatriots? I don’t actually have answers to those questions, but I am not willing to accept as given the answer implicit in the map.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      You’ve raised a fascinating question, as always, James! It is somehow understood by many that when a language dies, some significant cultural heritage dies with it. I don’t buy this view and I don’t think it’s implicit in the map either. Can’t the same folk tales and songs be rendered in the group’s newly adopted language? It may not be exactly the same, as translations practically never are. But difficulties of translation are not taken as an argument that everybody should speak the same language or that no translation should ever be allowed lest some shade of meaning is lost in the process. Nor should “cultural loss” be an argument for language preservation, I think. Now, for a linguist when a language dies, something significant dies with it—another piece in the puzzle of how languages can or cannot be.

    • http://www.eveningoflight.nl/subspecie Oscar Strik

      Hi James, I see your basic points, but you seem to imply that language shift is always a (free) choice. In practice – situations of cultures in contact -people are under all sorts of pressure to assimilate to another culture in some way, including language. Such pressure can in some cases be a thoroughly unwanted one.

      Just a hypothetical example from your list, but it might be that users of Yiddish (or YSL) feel extremely comfortable with the language and have an emotional attachment to it that one only has with one’s mother tongue. If the society around you has a policy of discouraging the use of the language, or even stigmatising it, I would argue that your freedom is being compromised to some degree.

      I guess we’ve all heard the stories about Native Americans being punished for speaking their mother tongue in school? The same thing happens with many minority languages around the world (also immigrant languages), and I would not consider that a positive social influence on a child.

      So, I guess what I want to say is: if it’s free choice, fine. But I don’t think it always is.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

        I don’t mean to discount the pressure to adopt another language, Oscar, though those tales of of punishment in school are used by nationalist groups long after the actual practices are discontinued and they are granted protected status. I am even willing to countenance some sort of intrinsic cultural value to any language that is incomprehensible to others and has a long history. I’m not terribly troubled by the extinction of Gepid, for instance, but I’m sure they would have had some stories that would have been rather interesting to read in their own language. It is just the assumption that the end of every language is a tragedy, no matter how brief its existence or how little difference there was from another language, that I take issue with.

        • http://www.eveningoflight.nl/subspecie Oscar Strik

          I guess rationally I understand what you’re saying and there are probably differences between the ‘value’ of each individual languages when you have to get down to it. What I have problems with is how to judge that value. Tragedy is a big word indeed, but I don’t feel I am in the position to judge whether particular people are justified in using the word to describe the endangerment or loss of a/their language, even though I might not have the same attachment to that language.

          As for the “tales are used long after the fact” point: here too I don’t see why people have would an obligation to stop talking about these practices simply because they are a thing of the past, particularly if the people who experienced them are still alive. It’s not like a legal protected status is the same as an end to endangerment, or even various degrees of oppression that are in some cases involved.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

            If a person is talking about something that happened in his lifetime, I certainly have no problem with it. In parts of East Central Europe, however, one hears the same tales of nineteenth or even eighteenth-century linguistic discrimination again and again.

  • BorisDenisov

    Why no America ?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

      I had the same question, but if you go to the site, it is a wonderfully interactive map of the entire world. My own Heimat of the Pacific Northwest seems to be even more a ICU of languages than I expected, for instance.

      • Jeronimo Constantina

        A language is the soul, the identity of a people, and its endangerment and prospects of extinction almost always leads to these people losing their
        identity, one that is centuries-old or millennia-old, into an indistinguishable blob of a larger group. Your mention of Klingon, Esperanto, and
        various constructed sign languages reduces endangered natural languages into mere conlangs, afterthoughts, rather than equals of much larger, vastly more powerful
        natural languages like English. This contempt of speakers of dominant languages for smaller natural languages makes it impossible for the dominant society to
        understand the gut-wrenching, agonizing, indescribably painful prospect of language endangerment and possible extinction felt by those who love their mother tongues
        in danger of disappearing forever. But this comparison to Klingon and Esperanto trivializes all that these endangered natural languages mean to their speakers
        and those who care about them.

        In the Philippines, suppression of languages other than the dominant Tagalog has led to alarming levels of language replacement, with 50 percent to 90 percent
        of the children in some places shifting from erstwhile major languages like Kapampangan and Pangasinan,
        Re: English as lesser evil/The Philippine language holocaust is NOW, Part 1
        http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DILA/message/21549

        Re: English as lesser evil/The Philippine language holocaust is NOW, Part 2
        http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DILA/message/21550

        “In La Union, Firth McEachern and La Union noted in San Fernando City,
        more or less half of Ilocano mothers of childbearing age speak Tagalog
        in whole or part”:

        La Union, Ilocos

        Isabela
        http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DILA/message/15369

        Baguio-Benguet (Kankaney)

        Language Shift o Tagalog in Tuguegarao, Cagayan

        Tagalization of Children in Pangasinan

        Bolinao, the other language native to Pangasinan, is also mentioned by
        Ethnologue as experiencing a shift to Tagalog:
        http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=smk

        “As an Ilocano, I know from experience that anything less means death
        of our cultural heritage. Many Ilocano speaking towns in Nueva Ecija
        are turning Tagalog.”

        But the following example, the city of San Jose, Nueva Ecija in Region
        III, is a clearly documented example of a place which has changed from
        predominantly Ilokano-speaking to predominantly Tagalog-speaking. San
        Jose, the major population center in Ilokano-speaking Northern Nueva
        Ecija, which is linguistically contiguous not only to the
        Ilokano-majority province of Nueva Vizcaya (part of the Cagayan Valley
        region), but also the rest of the great Ilocano expansion into the
        Central Plain which includes Eastern Pangasinan and Northern
        Tarlac…This is also true of other towns/cities in the same province:

        Pangilinan writes about the current state of Kapampangan (personal
        communication, 21 May, 2009):

        Palawan

        “Virtually all rural-dwelling Cuyonon now speak Tagalog to their children.”

        Tagalog Speaking City in Mindanao – Cotabato City

        Tagalization in Zamboanga City

        something which the map does not indicate. This stems
        from pressure and oppression by Manilans and speakers of Tagalog, who have prohibited the singing of the national anthem in languages other than Tagalog
        [Republic Act 8491, The Flag and Heraldic Code, punishes by fines or imprisonment the singing of the national anthem in a language.]

        as well as the prohibition for a long time of the teaching, and for a long time, the use of non-Tagalog languages on school grounds.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      The original map is interactive and allows to zoom in our out, as well as to click on specific languages for more information. But sadly it doesn’t allow to zoom out any further so that the whole world is shown.

  • Phil_Daniels

    I’d like to see some tabular data – preferably by country within continent. Is there somewhere where that’s presented. When I looked at North America there were fewer dots than I expected to see, but I often find maps deceiving.

    A consequence of losing a verbal only language is that you lose the immediacy of access to the culture of the people via myths and legends in the form of living oral history. Sure, it can be recorded and excellent work has and is being done in that regard – by academics and by some enlightened media organisations.

    However the opportunity to get answers to the newly discovered unknown unknowns and seek clarification on the finer points of a story, myth, legend, or how the it ought be interpreted in light of contemporary events is lost forever. Not only to academia, but more importantly to the people from the culture whose mother tongue has gone.

    PhilD

    Here’s a bit wider map

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for this map! I am sure tabular data is available at the Endangered Languages Project website. Also at the Ethnologue.info

  • Tim Upham

    A language becomes endangered when it loses its currency in the marketplace.

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