"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


A language dies every two weeks, researchers say

Sept. 18, 2007
Asso­ciated Press

When eve­ry known speak­er of the lan­guage Amurdag gets to­geth­er, there’s still no one to talk to. Na­tive Aus­tral­ian Char­lie Mungulda is the only per­son alive known to speak that lan­guage, one of thou­sands around the world on the brink of ex­tinc­tion. From ru­ral Aus­tral­ia to Si­be­ria to Ok­la­ho­ma, lan­guages that em­body the his­to­ry and tra­di­tions of peo­ple are dy­ing, re­search­ers said Tues­day.

While there are an es­ti­mat­ed 7,000 lan­guages spo­ken around the world to­day, one of them dies out about eve­ry two weeks, ac­cord­ing to lin­guis­tic ex­perts strug­gling to save at least some of them.

Five hotspots where lan­guages are most en­dan­gered were list­ed Tues­day in a brief­ing by the Liv­ing Tongues In­sti­tute for En­dan­gered Lan­guages and the Na­t­ional Ge­o­graph­ic So­ci­e­ty.

In ad­di­tion to north­ern Aus­tral­ia, east­ern Si­be­ria and Ok­la­ho­ma and the U.S. South­west, many na­tive lan­guages are en­dan­gered in South Amer­i­ca — Ec­ua­dor, Co­lom­bia, Pe­ru, Bra­zil and Bo­liv­ia — as well as the ar­ea in­clud­ing Brit­ish Co­lum­bia, and the states of Wash­ing­ton and Or­e­gon.

Los­ing lan­guages means los­ing knowl­edge, said K. Da­vid Har­ri­son, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at Swarth­more Col­lege. “When we lose a lan­guage, we lose cen­turies of hu­man think­ing about time, sea­sons, sea crea­tures, rein­deer, ed­i­ble flow­ers, math­e­mat­ics, land­scapes, myths, mu­sic, the un­known and the eve­ryday.”

As many as half of the cur­rent lan­guages have nev­er been writ­ten down, he es­ti­mat­ed. That means, if the last speak­er of many of these van­ished to­mor­row, the lan­guage would be lost be­cause there is no dic­tion­ary, no lit­er­a­ture, no text of any kind, he said.

Har­ri­son is as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of the Liv­ing Tongues In­sti­tute based in Sa­lem, Ore. He and in­sti­tute di­rec­tor Greg­o­ry D.S. An­der­son an­a­lyzed the top re­gions for dis­ap­pear­ing lan­guages.

An­der­son said lan­guages be­come en­dan­gered when a com­mun­ity de­cides that its lan­guage is an im­ped­i­ment. The chil­dren may be first to do this, he ex­plained, real­iz­ing that oth­er more widely spo­ken lan­guages are more use­ful. The key to get­ting a lan­guage re­vi­tal­ized, he said, is get­ting a new genera­t­ion of speak­ers. He said the in­sti­tute worked with lo­cal com­mun­i­ties and tries to help by de­vel­op­ing teach­ing ma­te­ri­als and by re­cord­ing the en­dan­gered lan­guage.

Har­ri­son said that the 83 most widely spo­ken lan­guages ac­count for about 80 per­cent of the world’s popula­t­ion while the 3,500 small­est lan­guages ac­count for just 0.2 per­cent of the world’s peo­ple. Lan­guages are more en­dan­gered than plant and an­i­mal spe­cies, he said.

The hot spots list­ed at Tues­day’s brief­ing:

· North­ern Aus­tral­ia, 153 lan­guages. The re­search­ers said ab­o­rig­i­nal Aus­tral­ia holds some of the world’s most en­dan­gered lan­guages, in part be­cause ab­o­rig­i­nal groups splin­tered dur­ing con­flicts with white set­tlers. Re­search­ers have doc­u­mented such small lan­guage com­mun­i­ties as the three known speak­ers of Ma­g­ati Ke, the three Yawuru speak­ers and the lone speak­er of Amurdag.

· ­Cen­tral South Amer­i­ca in­clud­ing Ec­ua­dor, Co­lom­bia, Pe­ru, Bra­zil and Bo­liv­ia — 113 lan­guages. The ar­ea has ex­tremely high di­vers­ity, very lit­tle doc­u­menta­t­ion and sev­er­al im­me­di­ate threats. Small and so­cially less-valued in­dig­e­nous lan­guages are be­ing knocked out by Span­ish or more dom­i­nant in­dig­e­nous lan­guages in most of the re­gion, and by Por­tu­guese in Bra­zil.

· North­west Pa­cif­ic Plat­eau, in­clud­ing Brit­ish Co­lum­bia in Can­a­da and the states of Wash­ing­ton and Or­e­gon in the U.S., 54 lan­guages. Every lan­guage in the Amer­i­can part of this hotspot is en­dan­gered or mor­i­bund, mean­ing the youngest speak­er is over age 60. An ex­tremely en­dan­gered lan­guage, with just one speak­er, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 lan­guages once spo­ken on the Siletz re­serva­t­ion in Or­e­gon.

· East­ern Si­be­ri­an Rus­sia, Chi­na, Ja­pan — 23 lan­guages. Go­vernment poli­cies in the re­gion have forced speak­ers of mi­nor­ity lan­guages to use the na­t­ional and re­gional lan­guages and, as a re­sult, some have only a few eld­erly speak­ers.

· Ok­la­ho­ma, Tex­as and New Mex­i­co — 40 lan­guages. Ok­la­ho­ma has one of the high­est dens­i­ties of in­dig­e­nous lan­guages in the Un­ited States. A mor­i­bund lan­guage of the ar­ea is Yuchi, which may be un­re­lat­ed to any oth­er lan­guage in the world. As of 2005, only five eld­erly mem­bers of the Yuchi tribe were flu­ent.

The re­search is funded by the Aus­tral­ian go­vernment, U.S. Na­t­ional Sci­ence Foun­da­t­ion, Na­t­ional Ge­o­graph­ic So­ci­e­ty and grants from founda­t­ions.

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When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets together, there’s still no one to talk to. Native Australian Charlie Mungulda is the only person alive known to speak that language, one of thousands around the world on the brink of extinction. From rural Australia to Siberia to Oklahoma, languages that embody the history and traditions of people are dying, researchers said Tuesday.