About half of the approximately 6,000 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing. Although ‘language endangerment’ is a relatively young field of study, the concept of preserving the world´s linguistic diversity has been around longer than the concept of safeguarding species of flora and fauna. After the signing of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, intangible heritage came into focus. UNESCO’s ‘Atlas of the World’s Languages in danger’ is a tool for monitoring the status of endangered languages and trends in linguistic diversity on a global level. The latest edition of the Atlas (2010, available in English, French and Spanish from UNESCO Publishing) lists about 2,500 languages (including 230 languages extinct since 1950), approaching the generally-accepted estimate of some 3,000 endangered languages worldwide. For each language, the print Atlas lists its name, degree of endangerment and the country or countries where it is spoken.
What are the criteria that a language must fulfil to be included in the Atlas?
UNESCO established the following criteria to define endangerment more precisely:
• Absolute number of speakers • Intergenerational language transmission • Proportion of speakers within the total population • Community members’ attitudes toward their own language • Availability of materials for language education and literacy • Shifts in domains of language use Response to new domains and media • Type and quality of documentation • Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, including official status and use.
The degree of endangerment of a language is related to intergenerational language transmission. For example, a language when spoken by all generations is safe. A language is considered vulnerable when most children speak it, but only to certain domains, such as home. A language is definitely endangered if children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home, i.e. the youngest speakers are of the parental generation. The language is severely endangered if it is spoken only by grandparents and older generations; the parental generation may still understand it but will not pass it on to their children. It is critically endangered if the youngest speakers are of the grandparents’ generation or even older, and the language is used partially and infrequently. A language is extinct if nobody speaks or remembers it. The editors of the Atlas decided to include such languages if they have fallen out of use in the past sixty years. Of all the categories listed, this one has been the most controversial.
When is a language dead?
The question of extinction is a difficult to answer. Over the course of history, a huge number of languages must have lived and died without any acknowledgement from the outside world. Should we consider ancient written languages such as Aramaic, Latin or Ancient Greek, which are no longer spoken but well documented and well accessible through written texts, extinct? Sometimes, if there is adequate documentation and motivation within a community, it may even be possible to revive extinct languages. Cornish and Manx were revived recently but are not yet taught to children as a mother tongue. Hebrew presents the most dramatic case of reversal of fortunes for a spoken language in modern times. Hebrew was always a canonical, codified language, venerated as the vehicle of Scripture, but it extended its domains greatly when adopted as the state language of Israel.
Language, dialect or variation?
Controversy arises not only about extinction, but also at the other end of the scale, when a language is described as ‘vulnerable’. One of those languages is Bavarian, which has been included in the Atlas to represent the distinct variety of German spoken in the south of Germany around Munich, and in some areas in Austria. Users of the Atlas were furious, not because of the fact that Bavarian was recognised as a separate language, but rather because it is considered to be in any danger at all! However, the editor of the European section of the Atlas states in his accompanying text:
‘German consists of Thuringian, Upper Saxon and Silesian, so that not only Low Saxon but also Limburgian-Ripuarian, Moselle Franconian (which covers Luxembourgish), Rhenish Franconian and East Franconian as well as Alemannic and Bavarian are recognised as regional languages. None of the regional languages are particularly endangered but they all continue to be spoken in a diglossic situation with the national languages’
(Salminen, 2010: 37).
Please note the carefully chosen phrase ‘regional languages’. The Atlas does not use the term ‘variety’ or ‘dialect’ here due to the complexity of distinguishing between a language and a dialect.
The case of Luxembourgish, also considered a vulnerable language and spoken by 390.000 people, has also caused a lot of controversy among users of the Atlas. It is estimated that only one third of children entering kindergarten in Luxembourg actually speak Luxembourgish as their mother tongue. According to an article of the electronic edition of www.wort.lu (published on 02.10.13) however, experts in the Grand Duchy claim that Luxembourgish is not dying out. During the recent elections, even though most official and government documents are published in French and German (the Grand Duchy’s other two official languages), all parties chose Luxembourgish slogans for their campaign posters. According to Marc Barthelemey, President of the Permanent Council of the Luxembourgish Language, this has not always been the case:
“Using Luxembourgish in writing and in formal settings is something new. For 50 years, Luxembourgish was never used at the Chamber of Deputies, for example. They only spoke French. I believe that Luxembourgish has many years ahead of it, even if it’s still to become a language used in writing too. At least Luxembourgish doesn’t look like it will be joining the list of the 230 languages that have gone extinct since 1950 any time soon, with immigrants adding to the number of people speaking “Lëtzebuergesch” and initiatives underway to promote the use of the language.“
Would you like to find out if your language is threatened?
Check out at http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/
Katerina Karavasili, TermCoord communication team
Christopher Moseley, The Unesco Atlas of the world´s languages in danger: Context and Process. http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/pdf/WOLP_OP_05_highres.pdf