There’s evidence to suggest that 1 language dies out every 14 days. As many as half the world’s 7000 languages are expected to be extinct by the end of the century. This happens when native speakers die out, or shift to speaking another language. Although this happens naturally (look at our good friends Latin and Ancient Greek), in our modern times the acceleration of dying languages is unprecedented due to our globalised world.
UNESCO have four ways of identifying an endangered language. There’s “safe” (not endangered), “vulnerable” (not spoken by children outside the home), “definitely endangered” (children not speaking), “severely endangered” (only spoken by the oldest generations), and “critically endangered” (spoken by few members of the oldest generation).
When we look at popular languages such as English, French and Spanish, it is easy to dismiss these as “safe” languages. They are the type of European dependables that will stick it out through globalisation (or even Brexit!). But different regions tell their own stories. We look at three areas and the languages that might need a bit of help…
The Isle of Man is home to the fascinating case of native language Manx. In 1974 Ned Maddrell, the last surviving speaker, died. However, the language revival effort has been great. Manx has become more visible on the island, with signs, radio broadcasts and primary schools all having a Manx presence. In 1991, only 650 people spoke the language. By 2015, this had grown to 1800 people. A little community effort can revive a language.
France has 26 endangered regional languages. They range from the severely endangered Burgundian (or Morvan) to the severely endangered Corsican. One of the reasons to protect the 7000 different types of language is the traces of history that they contain. Take France’s Breton language for example. It’s closely related to Cornish, and migration brought it in the 9th Century to Brittany. Similarly, in the 11th Century, William the Conqueror brought the French language of Gallo to England. What a swap!
The Spanish Canary is home to el silbo, the whistling language. Citizens us this whistled register of Spanish to spread messages across the island, navigating the rivers and valleys at distances as far as 5km. This is another case of revitalised language. Silbo became part of primary and secondary education in 1997 and is also incorporated into tourist experiences. Fun fact, in 2009 UNESCO declared it a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. Check out our videos on the Silbo Gomero language.