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In search of lost tongues

MicmacDrake Francis is a member of the Membertou First Nation in Sydney, Nova Scotia, whose language Micmac is among 87 endangered languages in Canada and more than 2,000 in the world. (Photo by Tim Krochak.)

More than 6,000 languages are nowadays spoken by people resident on this planet, but more than 40 per cent of those languages – or 2,473 to be exact – are reckoned to be in some degree of trouble, ranging from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered.”

Some linguists believe that half of the languages spoken on Earth today will be gone by the time 2100 rolls around. The most imperiled regions are those with the greatest diversity of tongues – sub-Saharan Africa and South America – but languages are in trouble everywhere.

UNESCO keeps an ear open and regularly publishes its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. (Somewhat ironically, the atlas is available in just three languages: English, French, and Spanish.) An online version of the Atlas can be found here.

The country with the greatest number of endangered languages is the United States, with 191, but Brazil is just a phoneme or two behind, with 190. China is third with 143.

Canada has 87 endangered languages, many of them critically endangered. In southern Ontario alone, there are at least a half-dozen critically endangered native tongues, all concentrated along the north shore of Lake Erie.

The Canadian catalogue of endangered languages includes Aivilingmiutut, Bella Coola, Micmac, Montagnais, Moose Cree, Woods Cree, and Upper Tanana, among many others.

It might come as a surprise to some – it certainly did to me – to learn that the United Kingdom has 11 endangered languages (12, if you count English). These include Alderney French, Cornish, Irish (in Northern Ireland), Jersey French, Manx, Romani, Scottish Gaelic, and European Yiddish.

France has no fewer than 26 endangered tongues, from Alemannic through Moselle Franconian to Saintongeais. Who knew they even existed? Yet, pretty soon, they might well be gone.

Some might say, “So what?”

For them, UNESCO has a persuasive answer, worth repeating in full: “Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value system, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrevocable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries.”

The loss is most complete in the case of languages that die without ever having been written down, as not infrequently happens. What’s gone then is gone absolutely and forever.

Since 1950, some 230 languages have disappeared worldwide. Like other lost tongues, they vanished for a great variety of reasons. Children move away to the cities; or an invading language gains greater prestige; or a society collapses, taking its language with it; or governments or religious authorities repress a certain tongue for reasons of their own. The list of possible causes is a long one.

UNESCO says that close ties have been found between the disappearance of languages and the loss of biodiversity. Preserve one, and you preserve the other. Ignore one, and they both go down.

We should all be planting trees.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.





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