Researchers say many languages are dying

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Sep 18 22:13:23 UTC 2007

Researchers say many languages are dying

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, Associated Press Writer

When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets together,
there's still no one to talk to. Native Australian Charlie Mangulda 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, says 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

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