December 11, 2023

Extinct and Endangered Languages Are Making a Comeback

Author: David Hubler
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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Learning Tips

If you think that Latin and classical Greek are the only languages that are extinct, guess again. How many people do you think speak Pictish, Anglo-Norman, Old Church Slavonic or Khazarian, Ba-Shu or Zhang-Zhung?

According to the UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages, there are more than 2,400 extinct or endangered languages. The list also includes 230 languages that have become extinct since 1950.

In all, the atlas estimates there are perhaps 3,000 endangered languages worldwide, broken down by degrees of endangerment:

  • Safe – Language is spoken by all generations
  • Vulnerable – Most children speak the language but it may be restricted to certain domains, like the home
  • Definitely endangered – Children no longer learn the language as their mother tongue in the home
  • Severely endangered – Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; the parent generation may understand it, but do not speak it to their children or among themselves
  • Critically endangered – Youngest speakers of the language are grandparents or older who speak it partially or infrequently
  • Extinct – No speakers left

NYC Nonprofit Works to Preserve Endangered Languages

A New York City-based nonprofit organization, Wikitongues, is now attempting to preserve endangered languages.

Theron Musuweu Kolokwe is one of dozens of volunteers working on the Wikitongues project. His native tongue is Subiya, a Bantu language spoken by more than 30,000 people along the Zambezi River in Namibia, Zambia and Botswana.

While watching YouTube, he was inspired to hear “my tongue and languages from my country and southern Africa in particular,” Kolokwe told Faiza Elmasty of the Voice of America, the official U.S. international radio that broadcasts in multiple languages.

Wikitongues was founded in 2016 as an open Internet archive. Its goal is to archive examples of every language in the world. Since then, almost 1,000 volunteers have sent videos in more than 400 languages and dialects to Wikitongues’ YouTube channel.

Among the languages included on the channel are Bora, spoken by only a few thousand people in Peru and Colombia. Another language that is in danger of disappearing is Iraqw, spoken in Tanzania.

Wikitongues co-founder Daniel Bogre Udell explained to VOA that when a language becomes extinct, “a culture disappears and a community loses its identity. That’s happening more often than many can imagine.”

As an example, Udell cited Hebrew, which became extinct in the fourth century B.C., but was revived in the 1800s. Hebrew is now “the mother tongue of half of the world’s Jewish population,” he said.

In Earlier Eras, Europe and US Tried to Forcefully Stop Minorities from Speaking Their Own Languages

Udell blames the demise of languages on the many attempts by European countries in the 1800s and 1900s “to forcefully assimilate minorities’ cultures.” In the U.S., there was a concerted effort during that time to force Native American children to learn and speak English rather than their tribal tongues.

“One of our tribe partners here in the U.S., the Tunica-Biloxi tribe in Louisiana, has over the past couple of years built a really lively language revival on their community. Their language went extinct in the 1940s,” Udell said.

Preserving Dying Languages Honors the Cultures They Came From

Fortunately, the Navajo language did not become extinct. The Native American language proved invaluable during World War II as a spoken code among U.S. army units that the Germans were unable to decipher.

Just as the Code Talkers have come to be widely honored for their vital role in winning the war, preserving dying languages honors their cultures and fosters a greater understanding of the role all languages play in society.

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