We’ve all heard about endangered animal species, but did you know that entire language groups can also die out? In our globalized world, languages are disappearing at an alarming and unprecedented rate.
While upwards of 7,000 languages exist today, the 20 most common languages are spoken by half of the world’s population, putting the rest at risk of falling into disuse and eventually disappearing altogether. In fact, linguists estimate that between 50-90% of today’s languages will be extinct by the year 2100. A language is considered extinct when its last native speaker dies.
The causes for language endangerment can be as varied as genocidal violence to cultural assimilation, with native speakers choosing to teach a region’s dominant language to the next generation rather than their mother tongue. And while there are ongoing research projects to record endangered languages in the hopes of reviving them should they go extinct, fully documenting the complexities of even a single language is a vast and slow-going task.
The loss of language has far-reaching negative implications. Gone forever are a group’s unique cultural knowledge, oral history, and ways of understanding the world; so is any specialized knowledge they may have about obscure plants and animals not yet known to scientists, especially in remote areas of the world. Scientific understanding of linguistics in general also becomes that much more difficult to piece together when languages are wiped off the map entirely.
If linguistic diversity fascinates you, you’re not alone. Ahead, learn the incredible and little-known history behind four endangered languages.
In the 14th century, German settlers formed an enclave in Gottschee, located in the highlands of modern-day Slovenia. Gottscheerish, an Upper German dialect, evolved among the settlers and their descendents.
In the 19th century, many Gottscheerish speakers emigrated to the United States, and the community was disrupted further during World War II. German occupation forces in Yugoslavia forced the Gottscheers to resettle in other parts of Europe, with many refugees relocating to the United States once the Axis powers surrendered. Speaking Gottscheerish was forbidden in Yugoslavia after the war ended.
Thousands of Gottscheers arrived in New York City after World War II. Some neighborhoods were so densely populated by fellow Gottscheers that Martha Hutter, a refugee interviewed by National Geographic in 2018, recalled that she hardly had a chance to practice speaking English. Many immigrants spoke Gottscheerish to one another but chose to teach English to their children. As a result, most of today’s speakers are elderly, with younger generations unable to understand Gottscheerish.
Today, the majority of Gottscheerish speakers live in the U.S. The language is considered “critically endangered” by UNESCO, with the exact number of speakers unknown. However, in recent years, some Gottscheers have resolved to revive the language in an attempt to preserve their heritage.
The Ainu language is traditionally spoken by the Ainu people, an ethnic group indigenous to Japan. Ainu particularly fascinates linguists because it’s a language isolate, meaning that its origins are unknown and it bears no apparent relationship to any other existing languages. Though it’s relatively obscure, this language was likely spoken in Japan long before Japanese was.
In the 19th century, the Japanese government enacted discriminatory laws against the Ainu; their land was confiscated and children were forbidden from speaking the language in school. With the advent of industrialization and globalization, the Ainu people were almost completely assimilated into Japanese culture. Today, many Japanese individuals with Ainu heritage have no knowledge of their ancestry and do not self-identify as Ainu.
In 2008, the Japanese government officially recognized the Ainu as an indigenous group with its own distinct language for the first time in the country’s history. However, this move toward recognition and acceptance may have come too late, with the future of the language now in dire straits. Two dialects, Kuril Ainu and Sakhalin Ainu, are already extinct, and Hokkaido Ainu is well on its way, with sources estimating that there may be only around 15 native speakers left.
In the past decade, more people have made an effort to learn Hokkaido Ainu as a second language. As the language nears extinction, projects have been undertaken to record it for future revival efforts. Elderly speakers have also attempted to pass on “yukar”, the epic sagas that are part of the Ainus’ rich oral tradition.
The Choctaw are a Native American people who originally lived in what is now the southeastern United States. The first tribe to be forcibly relocated under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Choctaw now live in the federally recognized Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and also have significant communities in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.
Until the 19th century, the Choctaw language was unwritten. Cyrus Byington, a Christian missionary from Massachusetts, spent 50 years working with the tribe to learn their language, develop an orthography, and translate the Bible into Choctaw. The linguistic tools he created are still considered authoritative by the Choctaws today.
During World War I, Choctaw soldiers in the U.S. military served as the first Native American code talkers—people who use a little-known language to communicate secret messages. Today, Choctaw is considered vulnerable, with native speakers numbering between 9,000 and 11,000.
The Aymara people are indigenous to the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America. First subjugated by the Inca Empire and later the Spanish Empire, the Aymara staged numerous unsuccessful uprisings before Bolivia, Peru, and Chile gained their independence. The Aymara have since been integrated into mainstream society in their respective countries, though to some extent this has caused a loss of their own cultural heritage.
Aymara is an official language in Bolivia and Peru, and a recognized minority language in Chile. Notably, it is one of only a handful of Native American languages with over one million speakers, coming in at over two million. However, UNESCO classifies Aymara as “vulnerable” because children do not speak it outside the home.
Aymara has a very rare feature that indicates speakers may have a different understanding of time than we do. Speakers conceive of the past being in front of them and the future behind them. This conclusion was drawn from gestures and metaphors that Aymara speakers use, and is one example of how language can represent unique ways of seeing the world.