Five Languages That Are Facing Extinction
Extinction has been a hot topic in the media recently, with growing concerns about environmental damage and climate change. However, it’s not just flora and fauna which can be rendered extinct through mankind’s actions. Languages may also be lost, often in response to colonisation, demographics changes, or even government policies.
When a language dies, it doesn’t necessarily cease to exist. Instead, it stops being spoken as the native language of any community, even if it’s still understood or referenced in literature. Latin is perhaps the most famous example of a dead language, having expanded and contracted its reach in parallel with the Roman Empire. This is a language which has influenced everything from Spanish and Romanian to Portuguese and French. It’s quoted in legal circles, co-opted by companies wishing to project a traditional aura, and even taught at university. But nobody speaks Latin as their first language any longer – not even Italians.
One reason Latin struggled to make an impact when it was introduced across western Europe and north Africa was its sheer complexity. This is a recurring theme among languages facing extinction, particularly ones which are difficult to learn. Vowels and consonants are normally formed by a combination of tongue and lip positioning, but some languages require glottal air expulsion and complex tongue movements. Children learn these from their parents, but people from other cultures struggle to replicate them. And time and again, the cultural dominance of English pushes fringe languages further into the shadows.
Globally, there are many languages facing extinction. These five dialects may soon disappear from the face of the planet, remembered only in history books and Wikipedia pages…
The marginalisation of Native Americans has had many regrettable consequences, including the loss of an estimated 125 indigenous languages. Of the 150 other languages facing extinction across the USA, Choctaw is a particularly poignant example. Recent attempts to preserve it through online teaching appear to have failed, and most Choctaw speakers are now middle-aged or elderly.
Two centuries ago, Choctaw was written down for the first time in a version of the Latin alphabet. However, this may have contributed to its demise, encouraging people to write in English instead. Less then ten thousand people now speak Choctaw, across a handful of south-eastern states.
Colonial settlement has also had a detrimental impact on Mudburra, an Aboriginal language spoken in dwindling pockets of Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory. Like Choctaw, its three distinct dialects have been effectively subsumed by the encroachment of English.
A lack of enthusiasm for bilingual education has effectively pushed Mudburra to the brink of extinction. Numbers of native speakers have dropped to less than a hundred, and Mudburra is now taught as a second language even in its former heartland town of Elliot. Australia’s National Indigenous Language Survey currently describes it as a “severely endangered” language.
While the name Picard will immediately resonate with Star Trek fans, the language itself has been spoken across northern France and the Wallonian region of Belgium for over a thousand years. This variation of Old French is distinguished by the different pronunciations at the start of many words. Picard is also related to the Ch’timi and Rouchi dialects, both sharing its French origins.
Because it has many aural similarities with French (“bojour” instead of “bonjour”, “merchi” instead of “merci”), Picard is among the languages facing extinction. Most native speakers are now pensioners, and the language is described by UNESCO as “seriously endangered”.
The letters VOD are commonly used to refer to Video on Demand services, yet in the Leningrad province of Russia, Vod was once a popular language. As one of the Uralic languages spoken across eastern Europe and Siberia, it bears strong similarities with Estonian, due to the geographic proximity between these regions.
Having been replaced by Russian in schools and the media, Vod is now only spoken by elderly people who grew up with it as their native language. Census data suggests the number of Vod speakers has dropped to double figures, with little interest in preserving this western Russian dialect.
While Picard is still spoken by hundreds of thousands of people, Ainu is believed to be spoken by a mere handful of families. Its name also refers to an ethnic subset of the Japanese people, numbering around 150,000 but speaking Japanese almost exclusively. Only a few families on the northern island of Hokkaido have retained Ainu as their mother tongue.
Admirable efforts are underway to save the last remaining dialect of Ainu, known as Tsishima. This is partly because the language has an illustrious history of oral storytelling, and many of these popular tales would be lost forever if Ainu was no longer spoken.