Wednesday, March 18, 2009

UNESCO Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger

Every language reflects a unique worldview with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The distinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others. Thus, disappearance of any language is an irreparable loss for the heritage of all humankind. And the humanity is up against such losses in a big way. At least the latest edition of the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger depicts so. According to the report, close to half of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world are doomed or likely to disappear in the foreseeable future.

The report lists levels of endangerment on the basis of who is capable of speaking the language in a family. A language is ‘critically endangered’ if the youngest speakers are grandparents, while it is ‘definitely endangered’ if children are no longer taught the language at home. Worldwide, there are more than 2,000 languages that are facing different degrees of endangerment.

New Findings
The report states that over 200 languages used in the world have died out over the last three generations, 538 are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered 607 unsafe. It reveals that there are 199 languages having fewer than 10 speakers and 178 others have between 10 and 50 speakers.

The updated data represents a multi-fold increase from the last Atlas compiled in 2001, which listed 900 languages threatened with extinction. It ranks the dying languages as unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.

The report states that about one-third of all of the world’s languages are spoken in sub-Saharan Africa, and it is estimated that 10 per cent of them will disappear during the course of the next century. However, the situation of languages is not equally dire worldwide. For example, Papua New Guinea, the most linguistically diverse with over 800 languages believed to be spoken there, has relatively few (88) endangered languages.

The report furthermore establishes that India, the US, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico—countries that have great linguistic diversity—are also those which have the greatest number of endangered languages.

Indian Languages
As far as India is concerned, the country has earned the dubious distinction of having the largest number of languages in danger of extinction. For instance, only 31 people in south Andaman Island speak Jarawa, while just 138 people in Himachal speak Handuri. More than 2.5 crore Indians stand to lose their linguistic heritage unless immediate measures are undertaken at a social and policy level.
The 196 Indian languages that face extinction include Dakpa from Arunachal Pradesh (with 1,000 speakers) and Byangsi (with 1,734 speakers), along the India-Nepal border.

The Reasons
There are several reasons why languages become extinct. The greatest threat most minor languages and dialects face is negative evaluation. People are shifting to languages of opportunity. Also, as certain populations — like tribes — decrease, their languages die out.

In Maharashtra, Naiki — spoken in Chandrapur and Nanded — has been declared critically endangered, while Kolami — spoken in Yavatmal, Wardha and Nanded — is definitely endangered.
The 2001 Census recognised 122 Indian languages, including 22 major ones (scheduled in the Constitution of India) and 100 –- spoken by 10,000 people or more –- as minor languages.

Extinct Languages
It is difficult to estimate the total number of languages that have disappeared over human history. Linguists have calculated the numbers of extinct languages for certain regions, for example, Europe and Asia Minor (75 languages) or the US (115 languages lost in the last five centuries, of some 280 spoken at the time of Columbus).

In fact, a language that is no longer spoken is considered extinct; since most languages have never been written, extinction is usually irreversible. It may be possible to revive extinct languages, provided that there is adequate documentation and a strong motivation within the ethnic community—Hebrew revived is the most recently and not yet taught to children as their mother tongue.

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