Mapping the extinction of languages

Language extinction map

Throughout history languages have transformed with moving populations. Sometimes they transform right of existence. I was never one to get weepy about dying languages. I have always thought it a fact of history. But I do regret lost cultural artefacts, as well as the potential for linguistic and cognitive research. “National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project”: tries to preserve endangered languages by identifying and documenting them. They have a brilliant interactive map that lets you learn about Siletz Dee-ni, Tofa, Sentinelese (from “The Last Island of the Savages”: and the infamous !Kung. Learn more about “language extinction hotspots”:

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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9 Responses to Mapping the extinction of languages

  1. Curzon says:

    “I was never one to get weepy about dying languages.”

    Same here — in fact, to be rather outrageous, I think it’s a good thing when minor languages are replaced by languages with a language with a larger population of fluent speakers.

  2. TS says:

    Another relevant posting from the Long Now folks today:

    Curzon, you are being a little outrageous, and I’ll take the bait. Being so apparently well-educated, you surely realize that languages are much more than the words and grammar people use to communicate, but rather encompass entire world-views and cultures. Some of these endangered languges are so incredibly bizarre, they teach us things about human cognition that we couldn’t have otherwise known. In addition to cultural knowledge that’s embedded in language, consider the ecological knowledge encoded in the endangered languages of places like the Amazon basin and New Guinea — these people have intimate knowledge of and names for plants that we need to do things like cure cancer. That kind of knowledge dies along with a language.

  3. lirelou says:

    yes, languages should be documented, but my brief experience with minor languages convinces me that those who continue to be monolingual in “minor” languages end up consigned to the bottom rungs of socio-economic development within the states they inhabit. This is as true of first world nations as it is of third world nations. Languages, like everything else, have life spans. Dynamic languages change, as English did between the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare, whilst dying languages lock themselves into a cultural apartheid that isolates their speakers from the larger population. Perhaps this latter is overstated, but North Korea’s attempts to “purify” Korean by removing words with Chinese roots comes to mind. Yes, I rue the loss of Acadian French in Northern Maine, and am damned glad that we still have Spanish speakers in the American Southwest (along with Navajo, Ute-Shoshone speakers and others), but these populations still attend schools in English so they can function within the majority population, should they choose to do so. I fail to see how learning either Portuguese or Spanish would deprive any indigenous language speaker from passing any of their knowledge on to the majority population at large. Both of these languages provide ample use of indigenous terms to enrich their own dialects. (Puma, Coyote, Guajolote, Zopilote, etc) Even in Spain and Portugal, Arab words were grafted to celto-iberian languages (almohada, dinero, azucar, naranja).

  4. Dave says:

    One component of exclusive minority language use can be the preservation of culture for the specific purpose of remaining unintegrated. Yes, perhaps it doesn’t advance their short-term material interest, but I consider that up for debate. Perhaps the benefits of their exclusion are – to these cultures at least – more important than dishwashers, computers, blue jeans and increased leisure time. I’m all for linguistic dynamism, but I don’t buy that integration into ‘our’ society is necessarily an overall good for cultures that currently use different value systems – value systems encoded in their disappearing languages.

  5. TheDreamer says:

    To call me multienthnic is an understatement, but I speak to varying degrees of efficiency many different types of english due to extensive US (and global travel). Spanish (mexican, castillian, and castillano (the argentine version where I lived for a summer my freshman year college); latin which i study in theology school all through high school; german (two college classes plus european visits); some greek, some japanese, some chinese and words in all sorts of other languages.

    The next language I am planning on learning in Cherokee, seeking to completely reconnect with my heritage.

    Mostly I’m saying there is a lot to the whole “world view” idea, and it’s too late to stop now, considering i’m only 21.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I can’t say I get weepy, but I do think that it is sad that elementary education is not provided in minority languages, with courses to slowly increase fluency in the main language, so that smaller languages can at least remain in the home. What happens is that as the community of speakers gets smaller and they are spoken less outside of the home, the vocabulary is slowly replaced by the vocabulary of the majority language, and the minority language is edged out of the home as well.

    This would be less likely if there were at least elementary education in the minority languages.

    I think that we should also take into consideration the fact that right now, languages are going extinct at a faster rate than they did in the past, primarily due to the possibility of economic migration and, ironically, to access to standardized education.

    My husband is one of a community of 3,000 speakers of an ancient and nearly extinct language. This community has recently seen a renewed interest in their language and the younger generation is also renewing their enthusiasm for their native language now that several scholars from Europe, and a family of Australians, have gone to study them. They figure, if it’s good enough for the foreigners, it’s good enough for their children. Until recently, many did not even want their children to learn the language, because of the stigma attached.

    Now, though, my husband has to choose between speaking his native Iranic language, or his dialect of Persian, when we return to the United States, as we are using the One-Person-One-Language method of language transfer.

    Tough choice, to say the least.

  7. lirelou says:

    Elizabeth, Elementary and even High School level education was in French in some Massachusetts cities up to the 1950s and early 1960s. These were private schools, set up by the Catholic church. The Greeks likewise had their own Orthodox schools. What happened to these schools is that the demise of the ethnic enclaves that supported them forced changes in the curriculum that eventually saw the mother tongue relegated to secondary language studies. Thus when my son attended the Franco-American School in Lowell, French was a foreign language course (taught by a Nun who “didn’t speak too good the Ainglish her”). The demise of these ethnic enclaves was a result of the suburbanization that followed in the wake of WWII. Girls and boys from different ethnic groups dated, intermarried, and eventually ended up in the suburbs surrounded by fellow Americans whose primary language outside the home was English. All for the better from an socio-economic perspective.

  8. Michael says:

    From what I’ve heard, learning a second language in early childhood prepares the mind for learning more languages later on. If that’s true, encouraging the teaching of these endangered languages shouldn’t hurt anything so long as they also learn their area’s lingua franca. The children in question still decide whether or not they actually use them, they have the majority language to help them in their daily lives, and they can learn third languages later if those prove necessary (more easily than Americans like myself can:P).

    So why shouldn’t they still teach French in parts of New England? Or native languages in or near the reservations? Or languages of immigrant groups in or near their enclaves?

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