endangered languages (fwd)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Feb 20 18:37:47 UTC 2002

New York Times, February 20, 2002

UNESCO: 3, 000 Languages Could Die Off

PARIS (AP) -- About half of the world's 6,000 languages are under threat
of disappearing under pressure from more dominant tongues or repressive
government policies, a new study says.

>>From France and Russia to the Americas and Australia, minority languages
and the heritage that goes along with them are at risk of dying out,
according to a UNESCO study to be released Thursday.

``Today, at least 3,000 tongues are endangered, seriously endangered or
dying in many parts of the world,'' said a statement by the Paris-based
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

``With the death and disappearance of ... a language, an irreplaceable
unit in our knowledge and understanding of human thought and world-view is
lost forever.''

The 90-page study, ``Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of
Disappearing,'' said the Americas and Australia had the worst record. In
Australia, hundreds of Aboriginal languages are now extinct as a result of
harsh assimilation policies in place until the 1970s.

``In the United States, less than 150 Indian languages have survived out
of several hundreds that were spoken before the arrival of the
Europeans,'' the study said, adding that discrimination lessened in the
1970s but English-only policies increased with a wave of conservatism in
the 1980s.

The study identifies ``crisis areas'' such as Taiwan, where more than half
of the 23 local languages ``are yielding to the pressures of Chinese,''
and New Caledonia, where French has replaced regional tongues.

It also lists about 50 languages at risk in Europe, including 14 languages
in France and several of the Saami or Lappish tongues spoken in
Scandinavia and northern Russia.

According to the study, a native language can disappear when its speakers
relocate and are required to speak the dominant tongue to get a job and
function in the new society, or because they confront a more aggressive or
economically stronger culture.

In Asia, the study says, the situation for minority languages ``is
uncertain in many parts of China'' due to pressure from authorities.
Linguistic diversity, however, is thriving in the Pacific region -- which
includes Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea -- which
accounts for more than 2,000 living languages, or a third of the world

Widespread bilingual or multilingual government policies on the Indian
subcontinent have helped keep local languages alive there, and some
tongues have even been resurrected through intensive revival campaigns --
including Cornish in southern England and the Ainu language in Japan, the
study said.

In Africa, roughly 550 of the 1,400 local languages are on the decline,
with 250 of those under immediate threat.

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