The International Mother Language Day has been observed yearly since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. Yesterday at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the 3rd edition of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger was presented in an online edition and is available free of charge worldwide. It contains information on 2,500 human languages throughout the world that are in danger of becoming extinct. The atlas aims to answer the questions: Why do languages disappear? Which parts of the world are most affected? What can be done to save them?
The film, The Linguists, was also shown yesterday. It’s about two linguists, K. David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, and their attempt to record and document dying languages before it’s too late. They are both directors of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and Harrison also wrote a book called When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge that I thought was really interesting. It made me feel incredibly sad for the last speakers of languages. Can you imagine how lonely it must feel to know that NO ONE else in the entire world of 6.2 billion people speaks your native language anymore??
And as the title implies, the book is much more than just which languages are dying. It’s about the human knowledge that we are losing with each extinct language. Cultures view the world differently and it’s expressed in their language, from classifying animals and creating calendars to drawing maps and simply counting. Not all human languages use a base 10 system. The French soixante-dix, quatre-vingts, and quatre-vingt-dix, although cumbersome, are much simpler than numbers expressed in languages that use base 6 or body-counting, for example. But if we had never known about these languages and their different ways of thinking, we would never know the limits and potential of human cognition.
Finally, UNESCO also offers a free map of the World’s Languages in Danger (PDF format – 20 MB). France alone includes about a dozen languages that are considered “definitely” and “severely” endangered, such as Breton, Norman, Picard, Lorrain, Burgundian, Auvergnat, Languedocian, Provençal, etc. However, the majority of endangered languages in the world (the “hotspots”) are concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, the American Southwest, central South America, eastern Siberia, and northern Australia.
“Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and unconscious work of anonymous generations.” – Edward Sapir, Language (1921)