Languages on the brink of extinction

Every year, some 25 languages die—that’s one almost every two weeks. At this rate, half of the world’s languages may disappear by the end of the 21st century.

Pie chart representing the percentage of languages spoken in the world. Description follows.
Description – Percentage of languages spoken in the world
Population Percentage of languages spoken
100,000,000 to 999,999,999 0.10%
10,000,000 to 99,999,999 1.10%
1,000,000 to 9,999,999 4.30%
100,000 to 999,999 13.11%
10,000 to 99,999 25.33%
0 to 9,999 56.06%

Pie chart representing the percentage of speakers in the world. Description follows.
Description – Percentage of speakers in the world
Population Percentage of speakers
100,000,000 to 999,999,999 40.54%
10,000,000 to 99,999,999 38.19%
1,000,000 to 9,999,999 15.43%
100,000 to 999,999 4.72%
10,000 to 99,999 0.98%
0 to 9,999 0.13%

Source: Data taken from "Table 2. Distribution of languages by number of first-language speakers", Ethnologue.

These graphs show that languages with over 100 million speakers account for 0.1% of languages of the world, but are spoken by 38.7% of the world’s population. At the other end of the spectrum, languages with fewer than 10,000 speakers account for 55% of the languages of the world, but are spoken by only 0.1% of the world’s population.

Although there are about 7,000 languages spoken throughout the world today, linguistic diversity is still at risk. Most languages have very few speakers: 94% have fewer than 1 million and 55% have fewer than 10,000. On the other hand, 94% of the population speaks 6% of the languages. And the situation is getting worse—the dominant languages are attracting more speakers, and the minority languages are losing more.

Languages have been disappearing for millennia, but not at this pace. Advances in communication, changes in migration patterns and an ever-growing population have brought an end to the isolated, traditional life of some populations and resulted in their being assimilated into other linguistic groups at an unprecedented rate.

Obviously, the fewer speakers a language has, the more precarious its situation is, but there are many other factors at play, including its prestige and political status, its transmission to the next generation, its being taught at school, its use in various fields and its capacity to create new words to describe new realities. Languages at risk of disappearing are often those of Aboriginal communities with oral traditions, which do not have a written language and for which researchers have very limited data.

Of course, the death of a language represents a loss for that community, which loses a part of its identity and culture, but it’s also a loss for all of humanity. Each time a language dies, a piece of the world’s cultural heritage is lost. “We are losing knowledge about medicinal plants, about marine ecosystems, about crops like rice of which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand varieties–many of them are only known by indigenous people. They’re losing this intellectual patrimony. Not to mention the historical information, the mythology; creation myths. These are amazing things that have never been written down and don’t exist in books anywhere,”Footnote 1 said linguist David Harrison.

Endangered or extinct treasures

Looking at just a few of the languages that are endangered or have recently disappeared, we can see the fascinating diversity that is on the brink of extinction.

An abundance of consonants

Ubykh, a language that disappeared after the death of its last speaker in 1992, had upwards of 83 consonants, which makes it one of the known languages with the most complex phonetic system.

To transcribe the myriad of phonemes in this Caucasian language, linguists used the Latin and Greek alphabets and still had to invent more symbols! And in Ubykh, verbs agree not only with the subject but also the direct and indirect objects. Something to think about before complaining about les accords en français!

Surprise discovery

Discovered by accident in 2008 by linguists during an expedition for the National Geographic Enduring Voices project, the Koro language is spoken by about 800 to people in a remote region of northeastern India.

This Tibeto-Burman language does not seem to be related to any of the other languages in its family. Surprised by their discovery, linguists are wondering how Koro managed to survive alongside Aka, a completely different language that is mainly spoken in the region.

Carpe diem

  • website of Dan Everett, a linguist who lived with the Pirahãs for many years.

Because it lacks so many properties believed to be common to all languages of the world, the Pirahã language has some linguists questioning their theories. The language of this Brazilian hunter-gatherer tribe from Amazonia is spoken by about 350 people and has one of the most basic phonetic systems in the world. It has no specific words for colours or numbers, no subordinate clauses and no past tense. The tribe’s culture is strongly rooted in the present and in observable experience, which seems to account for the astonishing characteristics of its language. Even though there are only a few hundred Pirahãs, their language is not in immediate danger because most of them are monolingual.

Linguistic relic

Photo: Dan Kitwood
Una, a Bushwoman elder from the Khomani San community.

The San people, also known as Bushmen, are the indigenous people of Southern Africa. They are the descendants of nomadic hunter-gatherers from the Neolithic period who may be the ancestors of the entire human race, based on genetic studies.

Today, the San live in the Kalahari Desert and speak a variety of an languages, whose main characteristic is phonemes that include clicks. According to one theory, these clicks are a remnant of an ancestral language from which the world’s languages have evolved.

Forced out of their traditional lands following colonization by Europeans and the Bantu, the San population declined and their social situation deteriorated. They are still fighting today to defend their rights and to preserve what is left of their thousand-year-old languages, culture and traditions.


The language of the Yaghan, or Yamana, people is known as the southernmost language in the world because its speakers have lived on the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, for thousands of years. Their language, of which there is only one native speaker left, has a remarkably rich vocabulary and unique grammar, which results in an abundance of lexical creations.

It also contains a word that has the unique honour of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as both the “most succinct word” and one of the “hardest words to translate.” Mamihlapinatapai means “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.”

Meanwhile, in Canada’s Galapagos

Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the north coast of British Columbia, is one of the most isolated areas of Canada. The islands are even sometimes called the Galapagos of the North. This area has been the native land of the Haida for thousands of years. Over time, a community was established on the archipelago that had a complex social organization and a close relationship with the ocean.

Today, the whole world acknowledges the Haida’s expertise in building housing and canoes, and their art symbolizes Canada’s image around the world. Unrelated to any other language, the Haida language is certainly unique, but it is in an extremely precarious situation because there are currently only a few elders that still speak it fluently. However, the communities are working to try to save their language. For many years, they have been documenting their ancestral knowledge by recording and transcribing the Haida stories, legends and chants still known by the elders. There are also programs to develop educational material and pass the language on to the new generation.



Linguistic revival: A complex operation

The threat to linguistic diversity has only been a matter of concern since the 1990s. Since then, linguists, governments and communities have been working to find solutions to turn things around. Endangered languages need to be studied and documented. We need to find ways to foster their use and pass them on within families and communities. This is a huge responsibility, but there are examples—like Hebrew—that prove that it is even possible to revive a language that has been dead for centuries.

Other resources on endangered languages

  • Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, UNESCO
  • Ethnologue – an encyclopedic reference work cataloguing all of the world’s living languages
  • Sorosoro – a program that aims to complete scientific research with audiovisual documentation of endangered languages and cultures around the world
  • Enduring Voices – a National Geographic project aimed at documenting endangered languages
  • FirstVoices – a Web platform designed to support Aboriginal people from Canada engaged in language archiving

Published on Wednesday, April 18, 2012

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