UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger is intended to raise awareness about language endangerment and the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity among policy-makers, speaker communities and the general public, and to be a tool to monitor the status of endangered languages and the trends in linguistic diversity at the global level.
The latest edition of the Atlas (2009), made possible thanks to the support of the Government of Norway, lists about 2,500 languages (among which 230 languages extinct since 1950), approaching the generally-accepted estimate of some 3,000 endangered languages worldwide. For each language, the Atlas provides its name, degree of endangerment (see below) and the country or countries where it is spoken.
The online edition provides additional information on numbers of speakers, relevant policies and projects, sources, ISO codes and geographic coordinates. This free Internet-based version of the Atlas for the first time permits wide accessibility and allows for interactivity and timely updating of information, based on feedback provided by users.
UNESCO launched the electronic version of the new edition of its Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger on 19 February. This interactive digital tool provides updated data about approximately 2,500 endangered languages around the world and can be continually supplemented, corrected and updated, thanks to contributions from its users.
The Atlas, presented on the eve of International Mother Language Day (21 February), enables searches according to several criteria, and ranks the 2,500 endangered languages that are listed according to five different levels of vitality: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.
Some of the data are especially worrying: out of the approximately 6,000 existing languages in the world, more than 200 have become extinct during the last three generations, 538 are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe.
For example, the Atlas states that 199 languages have fewer than ten speakers and 178 others have 10 to 50. Among the languages that have recently become extinct, it mentions Manx (Isle of Man), which died out in 1974 when Ned Maddrell fell forever silent, Aasax (Tanzania), which disappeared in 1976, Ubykh (Turkey) in 1992 with the demise of Tevfik Esenç, and Eyak (Alaska, United States of America), in 2008 with the death of Marie Smith Jones.
As UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura stressed, “The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it – from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes. The loss of languages is also detrimental to humanity’s grasp of biodiversity, as they transmit much knowledge about the nature and the universe.”
The work carried out by the more than 30 linguists who worked together on the Atlas shows that the phenomenon of disappearing languages appears in every region and in very variable economic conditions. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 2,000 languages are spoken (nearly one third of the world total), it is very probable that at least 10 % of them will disappear in the next hundred years. The Atlas furthermore establishes that India, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, countries that have great linguistic diversity, are also those which have the greatest number of endangered languages. In Australia, 108 languages are in various degrees of danger. In metropolitan France, 26 languages are endangered: 13 severely endangered, 8 definitely endangered and 5 unsafe.
However, the situation presented in the Atlas is not universally alarming. Thus, Papua New Guinea, the country which has the greatest linguistic diversity on the planet (more than 800 languages are believed to be spoken there), also has relatively few endangered languages (88). Certain languages that are shown as extinct in the Atlas are being actively revitalized, like Cornish (Cornwall) and Sîshëë (New Caledonia), and it is possible that they will become living languages again.
Furthermore, thanks to favourable linguistic policies, there has been an increase in the number of speakers of several indigenous languages. It is the case for Central Aymara and Quechua in Peru, Maori in New Zealand, Guarani in Paraguay and several languages in Canada, the United States and Mexico.
The Atlas also shows that due to economic factors, different linguistic policies and sociological phenomena, a given language may have varying degrees of vitality in different countries.
For Christopher Moseley, an Australian linguist and editor-in-chief of the Atlas, “It would be naïve and oversimplifying to say that the big ex-colonial languages, English, or French or Spanish, are the killers, and all smaller languages are the victims. It is not like that; there is a subtle interplay of forces, and this Atlas will help ordinary people to understand those forces better.”
The creation of this interactive Atlas, made possible with financial assistance from Norway, is part of the UNESCO programme for safeguarding endangered languages. Acting as a clearing house, the Organization facilitates access to available data and maps, and serves as a forum for debate that is open to communities, specialists and national authorities.
Half of the 6,700 languages spoken today are in danger of disappearing before the century ends, a process that can be slowed only if urgent action is taken by governments and speaker communities. UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Programme mobilizes international cooperation to focus attention on this grave situation and to promote innovative solutions from communities, experts and authorities.
Languages are humankind’s principle tools for interacting and for expressing ideas, emotions, knowledge, memories and values. Languages are also primary vehicles of cultural expressions and intangible cultural heritage, essential to the identity of individuals and groups. Safeguarding endangered languages is thus a crucial task in maintaining cultural diversity worldwide.
UNESCO’s flagship activity in safeguarding endangered languages is the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, with an interactive online resource now complementing its third print edition (in press). The online Atlas, freely available, aims to provide speaker communities, policy-makers and the general public with state-of-the-art knowledge, continually updated by a growing network of experts and community members.
UNESCO has collected some recent examples of effective language safeguarding projects in its Register of Good Practices in Language Preservation, and there are countless more examples published elsewhere. The first step in any safeguarding effort must be an assessment of the vitality of the language(s) to be followed by well-planned targeted measures. UNESCO is also exploring possible relations between linguistic diversity worldwide and biological diversity on planet Earth.
The 2003 Convention recognizes the vital role of language in the expression and transmission of living heritage. All intangible cultural heritage domains – from knowledge about the universe to rituals, performing arts to handicrafts – depend on language for their day-to-day practice and inter-generational transmission. In the domain of oral traditions and expressions, language is not only a vehicle of intangible heritage, it is their very essence.