small vital languages

Sebastian Drude sebastian.drude at GMAIL.COM
Thu Dec 23 15:21:52 UTC 2010

Hi Steven,

I guess the language I am working with is a good candidate for the absolute
minimum of speakers of a language which managed to maintain itself vital.

The Awetí were reported to have been down to 23 individuals, after a measles
epidemy killed 8 in 1954.  Maybe there were some Awetí speakers living among
neighbour groups, but certainly their total number was not above 30.

Still, they managed to maintain themselves as a separate group, with some
intermarriages from other groups, but keeping their language as the dominant
one in their own village.

Today they are around 170 speakers, and almost all children (which are the
majority anyway) acquire Awetí as their first language, so for the time
being the language is vital, although the socio-economic setting is changing
very quickly now.

There are several other groups with low numbers in the upper Xingu, but
those with less than the Awetí have lost their language almost entirely (few
or no children acquiring the language): Yawalapiti and Trumai.  The other
small languages in the Xingu mostly have several ethnic groups with slightly
different dialects:
Waurá and Mehinaku (together now around 600, below 120 in the 1950ies)
Kalapalo, Kuikuro, Matipú, Nahukwá (together now around 1100, were below 300
in the 1950ies).
The Kamayurá are also reported to have come way below 100 speakers around
1960, and are around 400 souls now, and have a strong language (all children
learn Kamayurá as first language).

In Brazil you will find several small but still vital languages, and most of
them have survived a chatastrophical demographic decline in the first
decades after contact.
Have a look at Denny Moore's article (in Portuguese, but speaker
numbers and language transmission will be accessible)

"Good survival prospects" are hard to tell in Brazil, with development and
integration of formerly isolated regions changing the setting very quickly.
I would not call any language in Brazil "safe" for the next 100 years, even
if it has thousands of speakers, which is a lot, for Brazil.

I hope these informations help.

Best wishes,


2010/12/23 Steven Bird <sb at>

> Can anyone suggest the names of languages having small speaker
> populations that still have a good level of intergenerational transfer
> and good survival prospects?
> Thanks,
> -Steven Bird

Sebastian.Drude at
Homepage @<>
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