The, major languages of the world are spoken by millions of people, but there’re languages with far fewer speakers, languages that may go extinct within the next few years as the number of speakers dwindle and as other forces change the language until it is unrecognizable. The process of the extinction of language has been ongoing for centuries, and many languages once spoken widely in a given area are no longer understood by anyone today. A recent report suggests that more than half the languages now in use could disappear by the end of this century.
It is estimated that there have been more than 130,000 languages over the last 100,000 years. The peak of diversity was reached 10,000-year ago when there were 12,000 languages in use. There are about 6,700 languages in use today, and more than half of these languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. These are the most endangered languages, and many are found in the Americas and in Australia, where 337 languages are spoken only by a few elderly people. These languages probably will not last beyond 2050 (Furniss, 2007, p. 53).
In the Americas, numerous Native American languages are endangered today, and one of the major ways these languages die out is that the last speaker dies and takes the knowledge with him. An obituary in 1996 noted the death of the last speaker of Catawba, his ancestral tongue. He had been unable to find anyone interested in learning it when he was alive. A reporter found Sangama, the last living speaker of Chamicuro, one of the 500 languages that once were common in the Peruvian Amazon:
According to linguists who track such things, at least half of the world’s 6,000 languages will probably die out in the next century. Modern communications, migration and population growth have brought about a loss in cultural diversity that parallels the loss in biological diversity as wilderness areas have been cleared. Missionaries have also played a major role. In the school she attended as a child, Sangama remembers, missionaries used to make her kneel on corn if she spoke Chamicuro (Taylor, 2000, 1276).
Most of the languages that disappear are spoken languages only, so there is also no written record to be examined. Linguists note that only about five percent of existing languages can be considered safe, and these are languages that are spoken by at least a million people and that also have state backing. Hundreds of other languages are spoken only by a few elderly speakers, and these are likely to become extinct (Taylor, 2000, 1276).
Threatened languages can be found all over the world. Mayton (2006) notes the threat to Coptic, a language long thought virtually extinct and today existing only in the liturgical language of the Coptic Church in Egypt:
Coptic is a combination of the ancient Egyptian languages Demotic, Hieroglyphic and Hieratic. It was the language used by the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt following the spread of Greek culture throughout much of the Near East. In essence, it is the language of the ancient Egyptians themselves (Mayton, 2006, p. 60).
Only a handful of people use the language today. Roque (2002) notes the likelihood that many languages like this will disappear, at least as a spoken language that is used in everyday discourse, though some may be preserved because they are recorded and analyzed before they disappear. She notes,
Experts generally consider a community language to be ‘endangered” when at least 30 per cent of the children no longer learn it. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that about half of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken in the world are under threat, seriously endangered or dying. According to the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, languages have died out and disappeared at a dramatic and steadily increasing pace in many parts of the world, especially in the Americas and Australia, over the past three centuries (Roque, 2002, p. 18).
Linguists note the reasons why languages die out, and one such reason has been globalization, which makes certain major languages the language of commerce. Also, national education programs tend to promote the majority language and to stamp out minor languages (Marlett, 2000, p. 611). Various scholarly projects are under way to try to preserve languages by recording the remaining speakers and by writing grammars for those languages. Some see the Internet as a force helping preserve languages as minority speakers are using the Internet to chronicle their language. Peter Austin, director of the Endangered Languages Academic Programme at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, note this trend:
Many minority groups are now taking advantage of this freedom to document literature, songs and other cultural material. Several sites now support the Hawaiian language, which, until a few years ago, was in a very dire situation, with less than 0.1 per cent of the population being able to speak it, says Austin. “Now they’ve digitized and uploaded a huge number of books and other materials published in the 19th century that fell out of print years ago and was virtually impossible to find,” he says. “In doing so, they’ve made it completely open and accessible to anyone who wants to study the language” (Furniss, 2007, pp. 53-54).
Languages are threatened when there are fewer and fewer speakers of that language, but they can also be threatened by government education policies, the demands of business, language requirements by missionaries, and other such forces. Many current languages may not last beyond 2050 as the last speakers die off, ad many others may not last until the end of the century.
Efforts are being made to preserve many of these languages before that happens.
Furniss, C. (2007, April). Modern Languages: More Than Half of the World’s Languages Could Be Extinct by the End of the Century, and Many May Not Last beyond 2050. But an Unikely Saviour Is at Hand Far from Bringing about Cultural Homogenisation, as Many Had Predicted, the Internet Seems to Be Keeping Endangered Languages Alive. Geographical, Volume 79, Issue 4, 53-55.
Marlett, S.A. (2000). Why the Seri Language Is Important and Interesting. Journal of the Southwest, Volume 42, Issue 3, 611.
Mayton, J. (2006, April). A Dying Language. The Middle East, Issue 366, 60-61.
Roque, H. (2002). Will Children Inherit All Our Languages?. UN Chronicle, Volume 39, Issue 2, 18.
Taylor, B.B. (2000, December 6). Endangered Language. The Christian Century, Volume 117, Issue 34, 1276.