Updated: Apr 23
The moment humans stepped on this earth, they invented and discovered things and evolved as a species. This evolution that took thousands of years to reach where it is today, stands tall with humans being the most intelligent creatures on this planet. But not only did humans invent and discover things to expand their knowledge, but they also held beliefs such as the belief of god, which even though has no scientific proof, humans still hold faith and follow cultures that revolve around the deity they worship.
Another cultural thing that humans have made is languages. These languages have been passed down, altered and spoken by several generations. But as these generations kept passing down languages and cultures, some of them became endangered because the number of people speaking this language either did not have successors to pass the language down to or died at an early age due to miscellaneous reasons. These language speakers decreased over time and this has also caused the extinction of several languages.
In the year 2021, we have 2500 endangered languages with 6 of them going extinct this year. To this day, more than 573 languages have gone extinct. From 1950 to 2010, the world added 230 more extinct languages. Moreover, one-third of the world’s languages do not have more than 1,000 speakers. Consequently, it is expected that 50 to 90 per cent of dying languages will disappear by the next century. This is alarming as old languages carry historical references and if a person wishes to learn more about their history, they need to familiarise themselves with these languages. New languages are strongly based on old ones so learning an old language makes learning new languages easy.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) regularly publishes a list of endangered languages based on the parameter of how endangered the language is.
Vulnerable - most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home)
Endangered - children no longer learn the language as a 'mother tongue' in the home
Severely endangered - language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
Critically endangered - the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently
Extinct - there are no speakers left
Remember to not mix up extinct with the dead as these are different terms.
Dead Language vs Extinct Language
A dead language is a language that no longer has a native speaker but it still has a use. Eg. Latin, Sanskrit, Coptic, Biblical Hebrew, etc., are dead languages.
An extinct language is a language that does not have any native speakers and also has no other use, no one remembers this language. Eg. Yana, Tunica, Tillamook, Susquehannock, etc., are extinct languages.
Let us take a peek at some endangered and extinct languages and the culture that surrounds them.
Northern Pomo is a critically endangered Pomoan language, spoken by the indigenous Pomo people in what is now called California. Northern Pomo is one of the seven languages holding its roots in the Pomoan Language family. The other languages are Central Pomo, Eastern Pomo, Kashaya, Northeastern Pomo, Southern Pomo, and Southeastern Pomo. This critically endangered language first had 80,000 speakers but now has only one living speaker. The Pomo tribe over time has shifted to many places which have led to the growth and development of the tribe. To protect the language, Ukiah High School first began offering Northern Pomo in the Fall of 2020.
Taushiro, also known as Pinche or Pinchi, is a nearly extinct possible language isolate of the Peruvian Amazon near Ecuador. This language was spoken by a tribe that vanished into the jungles of the Amazon basin in Peru generations ago, staying hidden from the outside world to protect themselves.
The tribe slowly vanished as children were being killed by jaguars in their sleep, bitten by snakes with no cure. Some drowned in streams and some people died while hunting.
People of this tribe were attacked by diseases such as measles and fatal forms of malaria. This wiped out the whole tribe except for one person that remains the only present speaker of the critically endangered language. This man can speak a bit of Spanish besides the Taushiro language and this is the only thing that helps him communicate with the outside world.
Dusner is a language spoken in the village of Dusner in the province of Papua, Indonesia. This critically endangered language has only three present speakers that had been almost killed in a flood in 2011 and then were urged to document the language to preserve it.
Yahgan, also known as Yagán, Yaghan, Jagan, Iakan, Yámana, Háusi Kúta, or Yágankuta, was one of the indigenous languages of Tierra del Fuego, spoken by the Yaghan people which now stands extinct.
The language was not related to any language although linguists did attempt to relate it to Kawésqar and Chono. Yahgan was also spoken briefly on Keppel Island in the Falkland Islands at a missionary settlement.
Many organisations put serious efforts in bringing back this language and spreading awareness of its endangerment.
Following the death of Cristina Calderón, (1928–2022), at the age of 93, of Villa Ukika on Navarino Island, Chile, no native speakers of Yahgan remain.
Jedek is an Aslian language from the Austroasiatic family first reported in 2017. The language was discovered very recently because of its ever-changing name. The language was studied for a long time to understand the culture of the people that spoke it as it stands highly distinct from other languages. As of 2017, only 280 speakers remain, making the language highly vulnerable to extinction.
Bringing this article to an end, whenever you may think of endangered or extinct languages, you will find way more options and data if you sweep more sources. You can check out UNESCOs website as they publish recorded data on languages and you can go to learn about these cultures in more books and articles. Even if you don't want to or an unable to learn any language aa such, always try to spread awareness amongst people who might be able to take more steps regarding this pressing issue.