Beyond Words - Language Blog

The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger

Donna Parrish over at Blogos, just informed us that United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has released the most recent “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger“. Now in its third edition, the Atlas’ release was especially poignant considering that UNESCO had proclaimed 2008 to be the International Year of Languages and its release intentionally coincided with the latest issue of the UNESCO Courier, in which contributor Lucía Iglesias Kuntz wrote an editorial entitled, Endangered Languages, Endangered Thought.

Back in December we featured a video of linguist, David Harrison, discussing the devastation to culture that occurs when a living language disappears. Apparently, Kuntz shares this sentiment:

When languages die, not only words disappear, but ways of seeing and describing reality; we lose valuable knowledge and worlds of thought.

The mere prospect of a language going extinct is harrowing. As Kuntz’s quote illustrates, the implications of such a tragedy are truly far reaching. His editorial details the scope and reach of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The Atlas was edited by Australian linguist Christopher Moseley. Moseley also authored the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages. This encyclopedia catalogs and describes a vast majority of the world’s six thousand or more distinct tongues, which are in danger of dying out within the next few decades.

Kuntz continues to cite UNESCO Director-General Kōchiro Matsuura in regard to the death of a language,

[It] leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it – from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes. The loss of languages is also detrimental to humanity’s grasp of biodiversity, as they transmit much knowledge about the nature and the universe.

If such statements are not troubling enough, consider that the last three genrations have witnessed the extinction of more than 200 of the aforementioned estimated 6,000 existing languages in the world. There are, according to Moseley, 538 critically endangered languages, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe.

Unlike the formerly ubiquitous and equally as puzzling Homeland Security Advisor System of multiple hues of fear and fright ranging from green to red, UNESCO’s methodology for accessing language vitality and endangerment actually quantitatively appraises a threat in a tangible manner. To learn more read the concept paper entitled “Language Vitality and Endangerment”.

Endangered Languages, Endangered Thought is not an alarmist tract; there is some good news. For instance, Kuntz references Papua New Guinea, which has the greatest linguistic diversity on the planet with more than 800 languages and only 88 endangered languages. Furthermore certain endangered languages are currently experiencing an active revitalization. Languages like Cornish (Cornwall) and Sîshëë (New Caledonia) now face the prospect of becoming living languages once again. Some languages like Central Aymara and Quechua in Peru, Maori in New Zealand, Guarani in Paraguay are benefiting from linguistic sustainability conducive legislation and policies.

To learn more about Moseley’s stance on the crucial importance of preserving languages read this interview.

Image Courtesy of: Obi-Akpere