Posted on: June 30, 2020
Map of endangered languages
Select a country or region on the interactive map below to see examples of specific languages classified as ‘endangered’. With stats, images and video footage available, get a glimpse into why these tongues are at risk of becoming extinct:
There are well over 6,000 languages spoken in the world today. This is itself a fact that is only recently established by linguistic science, and there is some debate still about the exact number. Not only is the difference between a ‘language’ and a ‘dialect’ a perennial bone of contention, but even in the late twentieth century, new languages remained to be discovered, identified and classified – often misclassified, when the data about them was only sketchy.
Whatever the exact number, even though perhaps some few genuinely new cases remain to be discovered, it is not a number that is growing. It is diminishing, and diminishing at a rate that should worry anyone who regards diversity as healthy in the same way that we may worry about the accelerating endangerment to the world’s rare flora and fauna, or the shrinking of the polar ice-caps.
The languages described and listed in this volume are all at least to some extent under threat of extinction within the next two generations of their native speakers. The ultimate reasons for their decline are many, but the most immediate reason is a simple, stark truth: knowledge of the language as a tool of everyday communication is not being passed from one generation to another.
Defining language endangerment
That fact alone stands as an urgent reason for compiling an encyclopedia such as this. For each language given an entry in this volume, our editors have tried to assess the level of endangerment that faces the language, given the circumstances described in the entry.
Generally speaking, they follow a five-grade scale as described by the late Stephen Wurm:
- Potentially endangered, which usually implies lack of prestige in the home country, economic deprivation, pressure from larger languages in the public sphere and social fragmentation in the private, to the extent that the language is not being systematically passed on in the education system.
- Endangered, where the youngest fluent speakers tend to be young adults, and there is a disjunction in passing on the language to children, especially in the school but even in the home environment.
- Seriously/severely endangered, with the youngest fluent speakers being among the older generation aged fifty and over, implying a loss of prestige and social value over a generation ago.
- Moribund, with only a tiny proportion of the ethnic group speaking the language, mostly the very aged.
- Extinct, where no speakers remain. This last category, in terms of this encyclopedia, means that a language whose existence is remembered by living people in the community merits inclusion, because there is at least the faint or theoretical possibility of revival.
Taken from the General Introduction of The Encyclopedia of the World's Endangered Languages by Christopher Moseley.
Endangered languages featured on the map
Lardil is a language spoken on Mornington Island, off Australia’s north Queensland coast. The number of speakers is now very low, from no mention at all in the Australian census of 1966, to 50 in Annette Schmidt’s The loss of Australia’s Aboriginal language heritage (1990) and Prof Nicholas Evans’ estimate of 1 speaker in 2007.
It belongs to the major Pama-Nyungan family of Australian languages. Clearly Lardil is heading toward extinction, if it hasn’t already attained it. But an unusual feature of Lardil is, or was, that it contained another ‘secret’ language within it: Damin, a language that could only be used by men after undergoing an initiation ceremony, and was last spoken fluently some time before 1980. Now no longer functioning, the world has lost something that the great linguist Ken Hale called a “monument to the human intellect”. Find out more on Lardil and Damin from Hale here.
Pû is a language spoken on Car Nicobar island in the Nicobar Islands off the south-east coast of India, and administered by India. It is a Mon-Khmer language within the Austroasiatic family, one of four related languages on the Nicobars. The speakers are counted as a Scheduled Tribe under the Indian constitution.
The number of speakers isn’t precisely known, as the Indian government doesn’t divulge census figures for the Andaman and Nicobar islands, nor does it publish census figures for languages with less than 10,000 speakers in general. Therefore it isn’t known if the number is declining. But Seth Wyatt, who recorded a video of the language being spoken for the Wikitongues organization in 2019, gives a figure of around 37,000. The language contains elements of unrelated languages that are geographically close, such as Acehnese (Indonesia). Watch the video recording of locals speaking Car, one of the of the four dialects that contributes to the total number of speakers remaining.
Nivkh, a language of Siberia and Sakhalin, is an unusual case of a language isolate, not known to be related to any others. There are two major varieties, Amur Nivkh, and Sakhalin Nivkh, and they are quite closely related. Because it is so widely spread, it consists of a chain of dialects. Amur Nivkh is also known as Gilyak; Sakhalin Nivkh is called Nighvng by its speakers.
In the nineteen-sixties and –seventies the Soviet authorities transferred most of the scattered speakers to larger centres with ethnically mixed populations, hastening the decline of the language. Before that the ethnic population of Amur Nivkh had been stable between 4,000 and 5,000, but now the number of speakers of each variety is estimated at less than 50. Nevertheless there are now revitalisation movements under way, and the language is written.
Evenki is a language of very wide and sparse distribution, across Siberia from the Yenisey to the Amur river, and on into China and Mongolia. It is a language of the small Tungusic family, and a tough survivor, living in a state of benign neglect in Russia and China, but thought to be extinct in Mongolia.
In the Russia Federation, most of the communities are in Yakutia (Republic of Sakha), and it has its own Autonomous district. In Amur and Chita provinces it is in decline. Within China it counts as part of the Oroqen nationality, but it’s declining there. The Evenkis are nomadic reindeer herders, and consequently their life has involved much migration over their territory; the dialect differences are quite small. Watch this recording by Kristen Tcherneshoff in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, Russia. In this video Varvara shares stories of her childhood: growing up reindeer herding, the first time she saw a Russian man from the west, and being gifted a mirror. Source: www.wikitongues.org.
Gagauz is a rare case of a Turkic language scattered across parts of Eastern Europe in small communities. Its main area is known as Bujak, in the south of the republic of Moldova, where it has an autonomous area.
Migration to the Bujak area was relatively recent, only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are also communities speaking the language in Odessa province in Ukraine. Coastal or Maritime Gagauz is spoken near Varna in Bulgaria. Scattered Gagauz settlements are or were found in other parts of Bulgaria as well as Romania, Serbia and Central Asia.
In Moldova, its main stronghold, it had 115,000 speakers according to the 2014 census. Although the language is Turkic, the speakers are mostly adherents of the Orthodox faith. It uses the Cyrillic script generally, but Latin in Romania. In many of its communities, the language is not being passed on to children and the language is gradually declining. Watch the video recording ‘Reflections from a Gagauz Village’ posted to YouTube by Last Voices, December 2013.
Panará, or Kreen-Akarore, is a relatively recently contacted language of Brazil, where its survival is dependent on a delicate balance of factors.
It is a member of the Macro-Ge language family. The Panará group, the last descendants of the Southern Kayapó, was decimated by the white man’s diseases after the first contacts with Western society in 1973. In 1975 they were brought by aeroplane from their traditional territory on the Peixoto da Azveido River to the Xingu Indigenous Park, but after twenty years of forced dislocation they were able to recover part of their traditional territory on the Iriri River.
All Panará speak their native language and some also speak Kayapó or Suyá, or both. Nearly all understand some Portuguese, but only a few men speak it relatively fluently. With 542 members (2014) the ethnic group is growing once again, but the language is still endangered. Watch the documentary film, “The Tribe That Hides from Man”, YouTube Feb 2013. The Kreen-Akarore tribe managed to evade the cameras and crew accompanying the Villas Boas brothers during their attempt to make first contact in 1970. However, this is not to lessen the importance of the film as an ethnographic account.
Sauk-Fox or Mesquakie is a central Algonquian language of the United States, spoken by about 200 members of the Mesquakie Tribe in Iowa, by fifty or more members of the Sac and Fox Tribe in central Oklahoma, and by a few Nemaha Sauks on the Kansas-Nebraska border. The Mesquakie variety is often called ‘Fox’ and the other two ‘Sauk’, but the differences are more social than linguistic.
Sauk-Fox is one of the few Native American languages to have been extensively documented by native speakers, first by William Jones, an anthropologist who worked with the famous Franz Boas, and slightly later by Alfred Kiyana (1877-1918), a tribal member who wrote hundreds of pages of Sauk-Fox narratives in a syllabic orthography.
Other Native American languages have used syllabaries of their own, such as Cree and Cherokee, and these have survived.
Kamsá is a language isolate, with no known relatives, spoken south of the town of Sibundoy in the Department of Putumayo, Colombia.The Kamsá people share the Sibundoy valley with the Inga, whose language belongs to the Quechuan family, and many Kamsá people speak both Inga and Spanish. Their language has been quite strongly influenced by Inga, and they share features at the cultural and socio-political level.
The Kamsá are actively trying to preserve their language by organising workshops, publishing texts on cultural topics, and performing their indigenous drama and music. Over the past decades the Kamsá people’s way of life has been disturbed by the civil war in Colombia, which is now officially curtailed by a peace agreement. The language is potentially endangered, with about 4,020 speakers.
Juhur – also known as Judeo-Tat – is spoken in northern Azerbaijan and parts of Daghestan and other regions of northern Caucasia. Still spoken in isolated pockets of Azerbaijan, its communities were mostly formed in the eighteenth century, where it spread to other parts of the Caucasus, in the Republic of Daghestan in the Russian Federation as well as the Kabard-Balkar Republic and Chechnya. The people are known as Mountain Jews, and their ethnic and religious affiliation is part of what separates them from speakers of the closely related Tat language, who are both Christian and Muslim.
Unusually for the Caucasus, the language is Indo-Iranian. In 1989 the total number of speakers from the Russian Federation was nearly 25,000. However, many thousands of them have subsequently emigrated to Israel, and transplanted the language there. Take a look at this recording, where a local speaks of a “Traditional Life” in Juhuri, from the Endangered Language Alliance, YouTube Jan 2013.
Maku’a, also known as Lovaea, is an example of a language that has been virtually decimated by violence and war. It is, or was, spoken on the eastern tip of Timor island, and is a member of the Timor-Alor-Pantar group within the Trans-New Guinea phylum. It is not closely related to other members of that group, having some unique features, such as a complicated noun class system.
Lovaea referred to a dialect within Maku’a that was more heavily influenced by Malayo-Polynesian languages. It is not a written language, and the remaining speakers have generally shifted to the related Fataluku language. In 1981 about fifty speakers were reported, and that was before East Timor became independent, following massacres and deportations. Some speakers of Maku’a are known to have survived, however, using a language that is now moribund.
Rikbaktsá is spoken in the Erikbaktsa, Japuira and Escondido indigenous territories in the Juruena river basin in north-western Mato Grosso state, Brazil. The language belongs to the Macro-Ge family. The Rikbaktsá are also known as the Canoeiros or ‘canoe people’, because of their great ability with canoes, or Orelhas de Pau or ‘wooden ears’, after the large wooden plugs in their earlobes.
Until fifty years ago they had a reputation as ferocious warriors, but more than 75 percent of their population died from imported diseases, influenza, chicken-pox and smallpox epidemics, during and after the so-called ‘pacification’ process effected by Jesuit missionaries and financed by rubber planters between 1957 and 1962.
Today the Rikbaktsá are bilingual in Portuguese, in which the younger generation is more fluent. The older generation only uses Portuguese to communicate with outsiders. In 2001, 909 people constituted the ethnic group.
Blablanga, otherwise known as Gema or Goi, is a language of the Central Eastern Malayo-Polynesian family, spoken on the north-eastern and south-western coast on Santa Isabel island in the Solomon Islands.
It is not a written language, though an orthography is being devised for it. The number of speakers has remained relatively stable at around 600, but pressure on the Blablanga language comes from the larger Cheke Holo language to the southeast. Pacific island languages like those of the Solomons, at least those that are not depleted by emigration, generally retain their viability and are threatened only by their immediate larger neighbours.
Hawaiian, spoken on the islands of Hawai’i, now part of the USA, is classified as a remote Oceanic language, one of the Eastern Polynesian family. It is closely related to the Maori language of distant New Zealand.
Hawaiian has one of the simplest sound systems of all the language in the world, with eight consonants and five vowels. The language was heading for extinction outside Ni’ihau Island until a few decades ago, when revival efforts started in other parts of the Hawaiian islands. Ni’ihau island has been a private property to which entry by outsiders is forbidden, and the largely monolingual Hawaiian speakers there were and are sheltered from the destructive influence of English and monolingualist American attitudes.
Today there are 2,000 mother tongue speakers, and 8,000 can speak and understand Hawaiian. Listen to the audio of Hawaiian being spoken on the Endangered Languages site.
Baka, also known as Bibaya, Babinga or Pygmy, is an Ubangian language of Cameroon, closely related to Ngbaka-Mab’o. A good portion of the vocabulary is borrowed from neighbouring Bantu languages, as well as from Lingala.
While population figures of around 25,000 are given for the Baka people, there are strong indications that they will share the fate of their cultural neighbours, the Aka, and will abandon their traditional way of life for a squatter existence on the fringe of society waiting for the next handout from a humanitarian organization. With this process they are also likely to abandon their language in favour of Fang, the lingua franca of the Southern part of Cameroon. Watch the recording from a research mission at Sumba Pygmy Baka, North Gabon by the Institute of Human Sciences. (Filmed by Laurent Maget and posted to YouTube, Mar 2009).
For further discussion on the loss of languages, and for research and resources available to you regarding protection and prevention of languages threatened by extinction, look out for the upcoming companion blog article Language Loss: Native Tongues in Crisis.