When we lose a language, we don’t just lose words; we lose a whole perspective.
Among 2,500 languages are in danger of becoming extinct according to UNESCO, and some of them are spoken by only 30 people. By the turn of the century, it is estimated that at least 50 percent of the world’s current spoken languages will be extinct.
UNESCO uses a set of five categories to define how endangered a language is:
Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).
- Definitely endangered
Children no longer learn the language as a “mother tongue” in the home.
- Severely endangered
The 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.
There are no speakers left.
You can hear natives say “A different language is a different vision of life” (a quote from Italian director Federico Fellini) in these endangered languages on this interactive map here, thanks to Go Compare’s Endangered Languages project. The written translation of this quote is included for each language below.
Bolivia, Chile, Peru — 2,000,000 speakers left
Mayja arux mayja jakaña amuyuwa
This is one of the very few Native American languages that have over one million speakers. Interestingly, speakers of this language think of time differently than everyone else: linguistic and gestural analysis has shown they represent the past as being in front of them, and the future as behind them.
India, Pakistan — Unknown number of speakers left
فروما چک سکت چی لوقسو لمتهونگ چک ان
Today, this language is spoken in Northern Pakistan and some parts of Northern India. Although, since 1948, English and Urdu have had greater influence, many words that are characteristic of Tibetan dialects have been retained in honor of the language’s roots.
Spain, France — 660,000 speakers left
Hizkuntza desberdinak bizitzaren alde desberdina adietazten du
Linguistically unrelated to any known living language in the world, Basque is classed as a language isolate. It is also believed to be the only pre-Indo-European languages in Europe; a fingerprint of the continent’s linguistic landscape during the Neolithic age. Speakers can be found in the Basque Autonomous Region, the Spanish province of Navarre, and in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques in France.
Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Ukraine — 4,000,000 speakers left
Іншая мова з’яўляецца іншым бачаннем жыцця
The official language of Belarus is also spoken in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Although the estimated number of speakers varies from one study to another, the general consensus is that most Belarusians speak Russian at home, with around half of them able to both read and speak it.
France — 250,000 speakers left
Ur lañgaj dishañval zo ur feson dishañval da sellet doc’h ar vuhez
Migrating Britons brought this language to Normandy during the Early Middle Ages. Despite an increase in the number of children attending bilingual classes, the language is still classed as “severely endangered.”
USA — 9,500 speakers left
Anompa inla ish anompolahinla hokmvt, okchanya inla ish pinsahinla
Spoken by just 9,500 people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, it belongs to the indigenous language family of the Southeastern United States. The written Choctaw language was developed in the early 19th century, aided by the “civilization” program of the United States.
England — Unknown number of speakers left
Thew taves aral golok dhibarow a vownans
This is the backbone of Cornwall’s identity, which is recognized as a minority language in the UK and protected by the European Union. The language had been classed as extinct in the past, but after revivalist efforts, its speaker numbers are currently growing.
Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil — Unknown number of speakers left
Peteî ñee joja ýva hae hina peteî tekove joja ýva
The language boasts a large number of non-indigenous speakers, a striking anomaly in Latin America’s linguistic landscape — usually dominated by European languages. Variations of Guarani are still spoken in areas of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. “Jaguar” and “piranha” are both loanwords from Guarani.
9. Irish Gaelic
Ireland — 440,000 speakers left
Tugann teanga eile amharc difriúil ar an saol
This language was spoken by all levels of society in both rural and urban areas of Ireland until the Great Famine. Irish became an official EU language in 2007; its nearest relatives are Scottish Gaelic and Manx.
Russia — 153,602 speakers left
Бус келн – бус әмдрлин үзл
The language is spoken by a small minority of Europe’s only region where Buddhism is the most practiced religion. The language of the Ewoks in the Star Wars film “Return of the Jedi” was based on Kalmyk’s unique phonology.
Netherlands, Germany — Unknown number of speakers left
Ein anger taal is eine angere kiek op ‘t laeve
Speakers of this language are dispersed between the Netherlands and Germany. It shares many characteristics with German and Dutch and is often considered a variant of either.
Italy, Switzerland — 3,500,000 speakers left
Una lengua diversa a l’è una vision diversa de la vita
Despite being spoken by people in Italy and Switzerland, Lombard is considered a minority language. Given that it is structurally separate from mainstream Italian, younger generations are considerably less likely to speak it, especially in urban areas.
Libya — 240,000 speakers left
Tutlayin am tiṭṭawin, ya tiṭṭ mammak ttẓerr
This Afro-Asiatic language is mainly spoken in north-western Libya’s Nafusa Mountains by some 240,000 people. The earliest appearances of Old Nafusi in manuscripts date as far back as the 12th century BC.
El Salvador — 200 speakers left
Kwak tikpiat ukse taketzalis, titachiat te kenha
Alternatively known as Pipil, this language is spoken in El Salvador. Despite a period of extinction in some regions, there is a growing number of second language speakers of it, signaling the language’s revival.
15. North Frisian
Germany — 10,000 speakers left
En ouderen spräke as en ouderen wise, et laawen tu siien
In 1976, this minority language was spoken by 10,000 people, classing it as “severely endangered.” A state law recognized it as the official language of North Germany’s Nordfriesland district and Heligoland island in 2004.
16. North Saami
Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia — 30,000
Nuppe giella addá eará oainnu eallimii
North Saami is part of the Uralic languages family and was first documented in the mid-18th century. It is recognized as an official language in Norway and as a minority one in Finland and Sweden. Speakers can also be found around the Russian borders with Finland and Norway. Only recently, it started being used in writing for administrative purposes.
USA — 6,000 speakers left
Bakaani-izhigiizhwewin bakaani-izhinamo bemaadizing
This indigenous language of North America consists of a series of dialects bearing local names, and, quite frequently, local writing systems. No single dialect is considered the standard version and there is no individual writing system that represents all of them. It is spoken in the states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Georgia, Russia — 550,000 speakers left
Æндæр æвзаг у æндæр дунемæбакаст
Spoken by 550,000 people on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, the language has its roots in deep antiquity. It belongs to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Its speakers can be found in North Ossetia which is part of Russia and in South Ossetia which is part of Georgia.
Bolivia — 2,300,000 speakers left
Waj simiqa waj kawsay yuyana
Formerly the main language of the Inca Empire, variants of Quechua are spoken by people in the Andes and highlands of South America. In 2009, Bolivia recognized Quechua and several other indigenous languages as official languages of the country.
Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Brazil, Mexico — 3,800,000 speakers left
Na parlada difarente xe una difarente vision de a vita
Venetian has its roots in the more common forms of Latin and is inevitably heavily influenced by Italian. It is spoken by almost four million people in the city of Venice and north-eastern Italy’s region of Veneto. Outside Italy, it’s spoken by communities in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul and the Mexican city of Chipilo.
Belgium, France, Luxembourg – 600,000 speakers left
On diferin lingaedje est ene diferinne avuzion d’ veye
Restrictions in the language’s transmission since the middle of the 20th century brought about a sharp fall in the number of speakers. A large number of associations are working passionately to keep the language alive, especially among young people.
Wales — 750,000 speakers left
Mae iaith wahanol yn weledigaeth wahanol o’r bywyd
Counting just over half a million speakers in Wales, this language is a member of the Brittonic branch of Celtic languages. It was one of the 55 languages that represented Earth on NASA’s Voyager program in 1977.
23. West Frisian
Netherlands — Unknown number of speakers left
In oare taal is in oare manier om it libben te sjen
This West Germanic language is spoken mostly in the rural north of the Netherlands and is said to be the most closely related language to English outside of Britain. It has been mandatorily taught at every level of Dutch primary schools since 1980.
Argentina, Bolivia — Unknown number of speakers left
Tolhañhi tojh wenlhamejh hop toyaynhek wet tokhey tojh wenlhamejh
Wichi languages consist of Noktén, Vejoz, Wiznay, and Matawayo. They are spoken throughout parts of Argentina and Bolivia, particularly in Rosario — Argentina’s third-largest city — where there are approximately 10,000 members of the Wichi community living.
Australia — 30 speakers left
Muriguwal dyiba dhuruwirradhi muriguwal ngaanyi murunhi
Across Australia, just 40 of the country’s original 250 indigenous languages remain. Wiradjuri is one of them, spoken in the south-western part of New South Wales. The publication of a Wiradjuri dictionary has led to a revival, with the language being taught in schools in a growing number of areas.
This article originally appeared on GoCompare and is republished here with permission.
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