According to estimates of UNESCO half of the 6000 languages that are being spoken today will disappear before the end of this century, if nothing is done to prevent that from occurring. If the unwritten and not documented languages will disappear, this means that not only will mankind loose its cultural richness, but it will also loose important knowledge of its ancestors, especially in the regional and minority languages and the languages of indigenous people.
Every language represents a world of thoughts with its own metaphors, proverbs and mentalities, with its own vocabulary, sound system and grammar. The extend to which a language is endangered, is classified by the publishers of the UNESCO Atlas according to nine criteria. The most important criteria are the number of speakers and the type and quality of documentation. Another criterion: the speakers have to value their own language. Another relevant element is in which spheres the language is being used: in the family, in free time, on the internet, in school, at work, in the media.
Overview of the languages of the world
In 2010, the latest edition of the “UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” was published.
The Atlas has information about more than 2500 endangered languages worldwide. 200 languages have gone extinct over the last three generations, about 1700 languages are seriously endangered, more than 600 languages are hardly used anymore. Half of all languages are minority and regional languages spoken by less than 10 000 people.
For Germany, the Language Atlas mentions 13 endangered languages. Sater-Frisian, North-Frisian, Lower and Upper Sorbian are regarded as “severely endangered”. Low Saxon in Germany and Denmark is regarded as “vulnerable”, and South Jutish is regarded as “definitively endangered”.
For Belgium, the Atlas mentions 8 endangered languages:
Champenois, Lorrain and Picard are “severely endangered”. Walloon and Jiddish are “definitively endangered”. West Flemish, Limburgian and Luxemburgish/Moselle-Franconian are “endangered”.
For Poland, the Atlas mentions 9 endangered languages:
Kashubian and Vilamovian are “severely endangered”, Belarusian, Polesian, Rusyn and Romanes are “endangered”, Slovincian has gone extinct.
The Atlas of Languages in Danger does not only present negative developments. A targeted policy led to an increase in the number of speakers of indigenous languages, for example in South America, Mexico, Canada and the USA. In Europe, the only positive example that is mentioned is the Cornish language (Cornwall), which in the editions of 1996 and 2001 was regarded as extinct.
Do you want to know more?
Moseley, Christopher: Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing 2010. Online version