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Researchers Say Many Languages Are Dying

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5i5Ct1a1hlSWClmrPt2j8TcNYgawQ Researchers Say Many Languages Are Dying By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID – 2 hours ago WASHINGTON (AP)
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 21, 2007

      Researchers Say Many Languages Are Dying

      By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID – 2 hours ago

      WASHINGTON (AP) — When every known speaker of the language Amurdag gets
      together, there's still no one to talk to. Native Australian Charlie
      Mungulda is the only person alive known to speak that language, one of
      thousands around the world on the brink of extinction. From rural Australia
      to Siberia to Oklahoma, languages that embody the history and traditions of
      people are dying, researchers said Tuesday.

      While there are an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world today,
      one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts
      struggling to save at least some of them.

      Five hotspots where languages are most endangered were listed Tuesday in a
      briefing by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the
      National Geographic Society.

      In addition to northern Australia, eastern Siberia and Oklahoma and the
      U.S. Southwest, many native languages are endangered in South America —
      Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia — as well as the area including
      British Columbia, and the states of Washington and Oregon.

      Losing languages means losing knowledge, says K. David Harrison, an
      assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.

      "When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time,
      seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes,
      myths, music, the unknown and the everyday."

      As many as half of the current languages have never been written down, he

      That means, if the last speaker of many of these vanished tomorrow, the
      language would be lost because there is no dictionary, no literature, no
      text of any kind, he said.

      Harrison is associate director of the Living Tongues Institute based in
      Salem, Ore. He and institute director Gregory D.S. Anderson analyzed the
      top regions for disappearing languages.

      Anderson said languages become endangered when a community decides that its
      language is an impediment. The children may be first to do this, he
      explained, realizing that other more widely spoken languages are more

      The key to getting a language revitalized, he said, is getting a new
      generation of speakers. He said the institute worked with local communities
      and tries to help by developing teaching materials and by recording the
      endangered language.

      Harrison said that the 83 most widely spoken languages account for about 80
      percent of the world's population while the 3,500 smallest languages
      account for just 0.2 percent of the world's people. Languages are more
      endangered than plant and animal species, he said.

      The hot spots listed at Tuesday's briefing:

      _ Northern Australia, 153 languages. The researchers said aboriginal
      Australia holds some of the world's most endangered languages, in part
      because aboriginal groups splintered during conflicts with white settlers.
      Researchers have documented such small language communities as the three
      known speakers of Magati Ke, the three Yawuru speakers and the lone speaker
      of Amurdag.

      _ Central South America including Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and
      Bolivia — 113 languages. The area has extremely high diversity, very little
      documentation and several immediate threats. Small and socially less-valued
      indigenous languages are being knocked out by Spanish or more dominant
      indigenous languages in most of the region, and by Portuguese in Brazil.

      _ Northwest Pacific Plateau, including British Columbia in Canada and the
      states of Washington and Oregon in the U.S., 54 languages. Every language
      in the American part of this hotspot is endangered or moribund, meaning the
      youngest speaker is over age 60. An extremely endangered language, with
      just one speaker, is Siletz Dee-ni, the last of 27 languages once spoken on
      the Siletz reservation in Oregon.

      _ Eastern Siberian Russia, China, Japan — 23 languages. Government policies
      in the region have forced speakers of minority languages to use the
      national and regional languages and, as a result, some have only a few
      elderly speakers.

      _ Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico — 40 languages. Oklahoma has one of the
      highest densities of indigenous languages in the United States. A moribund
      language of the area is Yuchi, which may be unrelated to any other language
      in the world. As of 2005, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe were

      The research is funded by the Australian government, U.S. National Science
      Foundation, National Geographic Society and grants from foundations.
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