Languages play a crucial role in defining social and collective identity. When a language is lost, we lose access to the history, culture, and knowledge of its speakers as well. For this reason, historians, linguists, and social scientists are sounding the alarm over the large number of languages that face extinction.
Today, there are more than 7000 languages spoken across the globe. Rapid globalization and language bans have caused nearly 40% of the world's living languages to be categorized as "endangered" to various degrees. If current patterns are not slowed or reversed, linguists predict that up to 90% of the world's languages could disappear within the next century.
Below are the languages you may be surprised to know are endangered and are at risk of disappearing.
Along with Russian, Belarusian is the co-official language of the state of Belarus. It is considered by most Belarusian citizens to be their mother tongue, which makes its status as a vulnerable language highly unusual.
Belarus was part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991. Although Joseph Stalin did not implement an overt ban on Belarusian, he pushed for the adoption of Russian in official institutions and schools throughout the USSR. Speaking Russian was seen as a symbol of citizen's loyalty to the Soviet Union, and the use of Belarusian declined accordingly.
As the two languages are similar structurally and gramatically, the transition to Russian was achieved quite easily, and the general populace was not willing to switch back to Belarusian after independence. Russia's role as a global superpower, in addition to Belarus's political alliance with Russia, ensured the continued dominance of the Russian language. Nowadays, Russian is primarily used for official, legal, political, and educational purposes, whereas Belarusian is used for cultural and folklorist traditions, adopted mostly by rural populations or opposition groups.
The island of Hawaii is the only US state with two official languages: English and Hawaiian. The Hawaiian language began to suffer soon after the late 18th century, with disease brought by British colonials killing hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians over the next century. By some estimates, the population was reduced by nearly 80%. The Hawaiian language suffered another major setback after the capture of Hawaii by US forces in 1896. The US government imposed a ban on the instruction and use of the language in schools, and English became the primary language in public spaces. 90 years later, the government reversed the ban in 1986, but the damage had been done.
Today, with around 2000 native speakers left, the language is considered critically endangered by the The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Local activists, however, have spearheaded movements to revive the language, sparking hope that the language will experience a renaissance to avoid dying out.
In 1868, the US government signed a treaty with the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the United States. The treaty mandated compulsory education for all children. Native American children were sent to boarding schools where they were taught exclusively in English and punished if they spoke Navajo.
Today, the Navajo language is among the most commonly used Indigenous languages in North America. Today, over 120,000 people speak Navajo, and the language is considered vulnerable due to the fact that younger generations are much more likely to learn and speak English than Navajo.
Irish is a Celtic language that was the Irish people's primary language up until the mid 1800s. As the British Empire cemented its rule over Ireland, English gradually replaced Irish as the country's dominant language.
Irish was dealt a severe blow during the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 that killed nearly 15% of the Irish population. With the large amount of people dying of starvation, Irish became associated with poverty and ill-fortune. Those who could adopted English and emigrated to urban areas, where English was already more common.
Today, Irish is the first official language of Ireland, but it is considered to be "definitively endangered" by UNESCO, and estimates of fluent speakers range from 20,000 to 40,000 worldwide.
Euskara is spoken by people in the Basque region of Spain. It is distinct in that is the only language European language that does not appear to share an origin with other languages. Such languages are referred to as "language isolate", and the lack of a clear linguistic origin indicates that Basque may be the oldest language in Europe.
The language had been surviving since the pre-historic era, until it came under severe suppression by Spain's military dictator General Francisco Franco. Franco attempted to erase all languages but Spanish during his rule between 1935 and 1975. Euskara speakers faced severe political persecution, regardless of whether they spoke in private or in public. As parents were fearful of passing on the language to their children, the language is considered vulnerable today with around 660,000 fluent speakers.
The disappearance of such long-lived and previously widely spoken languages is evidence that no language can be truly safe from extinction over time. It may seem practically useful for more people to understand each other and speak a common language. However, such thinking is short sighted when we realize the potential loss of the diverse ways we can interpret the world around us through language.