The Struggle to Preserve Endangered Languages

Category: Language

Tuvan. Aka. Cmiique Iitom. Chances are you don’t speak any of these rare languages, or even know where they come from, but just like our friend the Siberian tiger (…nice tiger…niiiiiiice tiger…) these languages are endangered.

Vanishing languages are found the world over, sometimes only having a few thousand speakers, sometimes less than ten. For a quick comparison, English has 328 million native speakers. Tuvan, a language based in the Siberian steppes of Russia, has just 235,000 native speakers. Linguists are working to record and preserve these once-isolated languages before they disappear; with the unique insights that languages offer about the world around us, every language lost is analogous to a species going extinct. Inspired by this article in National Geographic on vanishing languages, here are some curious facts about why these particular words matter so much to the entire globe.

Language “hotspots” exist…but maybe not for much longer. Just like biodiversity hotspots (i.e. the Amazonian rainforest), there are areas that have a high level of linguistic diversity and a high number of threatened languages. Most of these places are in remote, hard-to-access locations. One striking example is Aka, a language in Arunachal Pradesh, a mountainous border region in northeast India that is home to the most regional languages in the country (anywhere between 30 and 50 depending on who you talk to). Given that 85% of the world’s languages have yet to be documented, targeting these areas in particular for recording efforts makes sense.

Not everyone counts the same. Smaller languages often retain remnants of earlier systems, notably numbers. Instead of a base-ten number system, the Pirahã, an Amazonian tribe, have no words for any specific numbers at all. They use words similar to “few” and “many” that give relative quantities. Color is another area with varied interpretation in languages. What English-speakers divide up into the ROYGBIV spectrum is divided differently in different languages, with some languages having fewer and others more color categories.

Familiarity breeds specificity. Many speakers of these smaller languages live closely connected with nature, providing knowledge about flora and fauna that doesn’t translate into more widespread languages. The Seri in Mexico, who speak Cmiique Iitom (itself an “isolate,” or language whose family of other linked languages are now gone), have words for more than 300 desert plants alone. Another striking example is the information that these names can contain. The Seri word for harvesting eelgrass gave modern scientists a clue about to the sea grass’s nutritional merits. Turns out its protein content is about the same as wheat’s. Preserving small languages then can be key in passing down knowledge about everything for crops to medicine.

Though recording efforts can be controversial, indexes like Ethnologue are key for keeping a record of threatened languages.

Curious about language translation? While Cmiique Iitom might not be at the top of your global expansion language list, we’ve probably got a few that do.