Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger
“A language is endangered if it is not being passed on to younger generations,” the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger states. This report was published by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) in the year 2010. It notes that while information technologies have helped in the dissemination of knowledge at an unprecedented speed, “humanity’s linguistic diversity has been shrinking.” The report classifies 2,500 endangered languages across the globe into one of five categories: ‘vulnerable’, ‘definitely endangered’, ‘severely endangered’, ‘critically endangered’ and ‘extinct’.
The first edition of the Atlas was published in 1996 covering 600 languages whereas the second edition – published in 2001 – reported on 900 languages. As many as 28 authors from different countries contributed to the various region-specific chapters in this report. The Atlas was edited by Christopher Moseley of University College, London, and carries maps by cartographer Alexandre Nicolas.
Teasing out the common theme among the conditions of such languages, the report highlights that they often lack prestige and economic power coupled with low levels of literacy – even among their native speakers. The Atlas aims to bring awareness about the loss of linguistic diversity in the world.The document is divided into 15 chapters covering various regions: Cartographic representation of the world’s endangered languages (chapter 1); Sub-Saharan Africa (chapter 2); North Africa and the Middle East (chapter 3); Europe and the Caucasus (chapter 4); Western and Central Asia (chapter 5); North-east Asia (chapter 6); India and the Himalayan chain (chapter 7); South-East Asia, southern China and Taiwan (China) (chapter 8); Greater Pacific area (chapter 9); Australia (chapter 10); South America (chapter 11); South America: Andean region (chapter 12); Mexico and Central America (chapter 13); United States of America (chapter 14); and Canada and Greenland (chapter 15).
The Atlas classifies endangered languages into five categories. A language that is 'vulnerable’ is spoken by most people of a community across all generations and can be the first-language of many speakers, but is generally only spoken in certain domains, such as within the home. ‘Definitely endangered’ languages are no longer learned at home as the mother tongue, meaning that younger generations cannot speak the language. The youngest speakers are of parental age.
The languages that are only spoken by people of the older generations are termed as ‘severely endangered’. While the parental generation may understand these languages, they do not converse regularly in them or pass it down to their children.
A ‘critically endangered’ language is not used for everyday interactions and the people who do remember it are from the great-grandparental generation. Even those who remember it may not use it on a regular basis. Finally, ‘extinct’ languages are those no one speaks in or remembers.
Around one-thirds of the languages in the world are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, the report states. Even today, Africans speak with each other in more than 2,000 languages. However, up to 10 per cent of these languages, especially those spoken by smaller communities, are at a risk of disappearing in the next century.
In the Indian subcontinent, the report records almost 300 languages to be under threat, out of which 40 are ‘critically endangered’ and 10 have already gone extinct. More than 100 are categorised as ‘vulnerable’, around 100 more as ‘definitely endangered’ and about two dozen are ‘severely endangered’.
The list of languages under threat in the region include approximately 180 Tibeto-Burman languages spoken by communities along the Himalayan chain. Many Dravidian, Indo-Aryan and Austro-Asiatic languages, along with several Daic languages spoken by communities in central, eastern and north-eastern part of India are also under threat, as per the report.
More than half of the roughly 170 endangered languages within India are the Tibeto-Burman languages found in north-east India, especially in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.
Other endangered languages in the country include: two dozen Austro-Asiatic languages (eastern India and the Nicobar islands), a dozen Tibeto-Burman languages (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), two dozen Dravidian languages (central and south India), two dozen Indo-Aryan languages (central and northern India) and a few Daic languages (Assam).
According to the report, the reason for these languages being under threat in India is not a lack of linguistic or grammatical complexity. These languages are in decline because they are considered to be ‘unfashionable’, are not taught in schools and lack the necessary state support.
The report also highlights the lack of a viable script for most of the languages in India. Although scripts for some have been ‘rediscovered or revived’, only a few are in regular use in public settings.
In India, languages gain ‘official’ status when they are included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The Schedule currently contains 22 such languages, but only two languages included in it are endangered languages – Meithei or Manipuri and Bodo.
Multilingualism is the general practice across the Indian subcontinent. In such a scenario, the mother tongue – which is often an endangered language – gets marginalised in favour of the language dominant in the region. The report says that probably most of the endangered languages in the subcontinent will survive for decades to come. Others, however, will face extinction by 2100.
Focus and Factoids by Sowmya Vaidyanathan.
United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Programme (UNESCO)
Editor-in-Chief: Christopher MoseleyCartographer: Alexandre Nicolas
United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Programme (UNESCO), Paris