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New atlas shows dying languages around the world
PARIS – Only one native speaker of Livonian remains on Earth, in Latvia. The Alaskan language Eyak went extinct last year when its last surviving speaker passed away. Those are just two of the nearly 2,500 languages that UNESCO says are in danger of becoming extinct or have recently disappeared. That’s out of a total of 6,000 world languages.
In a presentation Thursday of a new world atlas of endangered languages, linguists stressed the list is not restricted to small or far-flung countries. They also sought to encourage immigrants to treasure their native languages.
“Language endangerment is a universal phenomenon,” said Christopher Moseley, an Australian linguist who edited the atlas’ third edition, which is to appear in digital and paper versions.
The atlas says 200 languages have become extinct in the last three generations, and another 199 languages have fewer than 10 speakers left.
More than a fourth of the 192 languages once spoken in the United States have disappeared. Another 71 are severely endangered, according to the atlas.
There is Gros Ventre, spoken by fewer than 10 people in north-central Montana. All are elderly, and none is fully fluent. The last fully fluent speaker died in 1981.
Or Menomonee, spoken in northeast Wisconsin, with just 35 speakers left.
The digital version of the atlas invites users to contribute with updates and allows them to search according to country, degree of endangerment, name of languages or by number of speakers.
Type in Russia, and color-coded flags appear ranging from white (unsafe) — denoting languages such as Lezgian, spoken in the Caucasus Mountains — to red (critically endangered), marking those such as the Tundra Enets, spoken in Arctic islands.
Not all is bleak, however. Some endangered languages, like Latvia’s Livonian, are being revived by young people and through poetry.
Marleen Habard, editor of the atlas’ Andean regions, said indigenous groups in South America have been at the forefront of preserving their regional tongues by pressuring governments to recognize indigenous rights.
Some languages have only recently been discovered. Andoan was not known until a journalist discovered a small group of its speakers on the border between Peru and Ecuador in 2000, Harbard said.
Francoise Riviere, deputy director of culture at UNESCO, said raising awareness of the importance of mother tongues is a crucial goal of the project.
“We are trying to teach people that the language of the country from where we come is important, and what counts is being proud of one’s own language,” she said.
A paper version of the 2009 atlas — which was funded by Norway and involved a team of over 30 linguists — will be launched in May.
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