While there were over 9,000 languages in AD 1,000, today there are fewer than 7,000. Statistically, one language dies every two weeks, and forecasts assume that around 3,000 languages will die out in the 21st century. These are still optimistic assessments. Other studies assume a maximum of 100 remaining languages in 2200. One thing is sure: the extinction of languages is advancing at an alarming pace. In addition to the already lost languages (e.g., Latin), there are already so many other languages spoken by so few people that they will no longer exist in the foreseeable future, which leads to a critical situation. The great variety of languages ensures cultural biodiversity and significantly shape the identity of a culture. But when languages that are only spoken by minorities are being pushed back over time, an essential part of their culture vanishes with them. Some die out before they are written down and are therefore difficult or impossible to reconstruct.
UNESCO has taken on this critical fact and published the Atlas “Endangered Languages.” One glance is enough to see that there are endangered languages worldwide – even in Europe, where Irish, Sicilian, and Yiddish are affected.
Endangered Languages Worldwide
According to the degree of their endangerment, languages are classified by UNESCO in the Language Atlas in six categories. Depending on their distribution (number of speakers), transmission to the next generation, and the language’s social status, they are classified as follows:
The UNESCO Language Atlas clearly shows that the languages that are dying out include the indigenous languages in North and Central America and Africa. In Mexico alone, 64 of the 68 languages spoken are threatened with extinction. Of the almost 50 languages in Peru, a large number also show a high degree of risk. Even Quechua, which several million people used to speak in Peru and Bolivia, is in danger. In Africa, more than 350 languages are considered seriously endangered. In Australia, there are over 100 languages on the list.
Even the Kurdish language, which occurs in various countries (e.g., Turkey, Iran, Iraq), was classified as potentially endangered. However, it has a high social status and a relatively high distribution among the Kurds (20 million speakers). Nevertheless, it is not an official language anywhere, since it hardly plays a role in the education systems, which means that the language one of the oldest civilized peoples is on the “red list.” Yiddish is also a language that is more than a thousand years old and has spread widely due to the intense emigration of the Jewish population. Today only 3 million people speak it, but it is hardly passed on to the younger generation. UNESCO classifies it as endangered, as well.
Among the nearly 200 languages in Europe, there are also numerous endangered languages. These include many Celtic languages such as Welsh (endangered), Breton (seriously endangered), and Irish (endangered). Although Irish (Gaelic) is an official language in Ireland alongside English and is even one of the 24 official European languages, it can be found on the UNESCO list. It is estimated that only about 44,000 people use Irish as an everyday language. Among the Romance languages, Corsican (potentially endangered), Sardinian (endangered), and Sicilian (endangered) are listed. Sicilian is still spoken by almost 5 million people in Sicily and partly in Apulia and Calabria. However, it hardly plays a role in public life. It is not an official language, and it is not taught in schools. Sicilian is, therefore, a so-called private matter.
Why should endangered languages be preserved at all?
UNESCO estimates that dominant languages will replace over 90 percent of the native languages in most regions of the world by the end of the 21st century. This leads to a catastrophic loss of culture, traditions, and values because language always reflects one’s own identity. It is the most important means of social contact and acts as a medium through which a community transmits its culture. The close connection between language and culture, which is anchored in the vocabulary, is evident, for example, in the classification of everyday objects and animals and plants. If a language dies out, culture-specific knowledge is also lost. With the death of a language, examples of human thinking and ways of expressing oneself are also lost. In many languages, particular distinctions that we take for granted are missing, or conversely, concepts are expressed in a much more differentiated manner. Languages are also of great value from an anthropological point of view. Today, we know that there’s a connection between “Ketic,” an almost extinct language of Siberia, and the North American Indians’ Navajo languages. This relationship could be evidence of the connection between the Siberian and North American indigenous peoples in human history – groundbreaking discovery.
In part 2 of this article series, we’ll talk about the various reasons for a language’s extinction and, above all, what exactly we can do to preserve it. So make sure to follow us on Social Media and check for updates on our blog!