The Endangered Languages Project has catalogued some 3,418 languages, highlighting the extent of the linguistic crisis that our planet is facing. Languages are dying at an incredible pace, and with each language we lose, we also lose an unmeasurable, intangible part of the world’s cultural diversity.
In honour of all those dialects struggling to survive, and of the skill and art behind all human translation services, we’ve taken a look at some of the most endangered languages on the planet.
Rosa Andrade Ocagane and her brother Pablo learned to speak Resígaro to honour their Resígaro mother. When Rosa was killed in Peru in 2016, Pablo became the last known Resígaro speaker.
Another Peruvian language, Ocaina also has very few speakers – Pablo being one of them, thanks to his Ocaina father. At last count, there were fewer than 40 Ocaina speakers still alive.
With only one speaker at last count, the Native American language of Patwin seemed almost certainly doomed. However, educational establishments in West-Central California have been doing their best to revive the dialect, with Patwin classes for children running from pre-school age all the way through to high school.
Half a world away, in Russia, the Ös language has just 44 remaining speakers. Also called Chulym Turks, the Ös people are a government-recognised ethnic group.
Over in the Hokkaido area of Japan, the Ainu language has between two and 15 speakers, all aged 64 or more. With no young people speaking the language, its loss seems all but inevitable.
Dunser is an official language spoken by just three residents of Papua New Guinea. It is used for formal occasions like weddings. When two of the three remaining Dunser speakers nearly lost their lives in floods back in 2011, the natural disaster prompted a team of linguists from Oxford University to race to Papua New Guinea to document the language.
Also known as Vod, Votic, Votian and Vote, this language has just eight remaining speakers. With speaker numbers dropping from 68 ten years ago, the future of Votish seems bleak indeed.
Hope for the future?
While there seems little hope for many endangered languages, work is underway to document and protect some of these tongues. From the Patwin classes in California to the efforts of organisations such as Oxford University, a movement is taking place to try and nurture the most vulnerable dialects. And in some cases, there is hope that this is having an impact (although it should be noted that some of the increases in speaker numbers could just be down to better documenting.
In Australia’s Northern Territory, for example, recorded speakers of Mudburra increased from 47 at the time of the 2006 Census to 92 at the time of the 2016 one. Likewise, in Peru, the Chamicuro tribe was recorded as having just two speakers of their native language back in 2004, but eight in 2008.
While it is perfectly possible that both instances are simply statistical anomalies, it may be that the work of the Endangered Languages Project and similar bodies is having a positive impact in keeping our linguistic heritage alive.
With 2019 being the Year of Indigenous Languages, we can work to collectively refocus our attention on those tongues that fact the threat of extinction and find new ways to keep them alive before they are lost forever.
What more can we do to keep our world’s endangered languages alive? Is the fight to save dying tongues worth the time and re, or should we just accept that some languages are doomed to the history books? As ever, feel free to share your views below!