Vienna, February 21 – Today is Native Language Day, a United Nations holiday established a decade ago and designed to call attention both to the contribution even the smallest linguistic communities make to the cultural and, through their maintenance of groups, even biological diversity of the human family and to the threats these communities now face.
To mark that event this year, UNESCO has released a new “Atlas of the Languages of the World.” That work, prepared during 2008, which the UN had declared the International Year of Languages, is available on line (www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00206 and
This remarkably useful compilation not only provides information on some 2500 languages, out of the more than 6,000 most linguists say exist, but also classified those in terms of the risk they face over the next century. And the UN experts suggest that approximately a third of these languages will not be spoken 100 years from now.
Most of the languages at risk of disappearing are spoken by extremely small and hitherto isolated communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but size is not the only factor involved in language survival – status, interest, and government support are among the other things that determine outcomes.
And consequently, many languages spoken in the past in Europe and North America are now at risk of disappearing. The UN projections for the situation in the Russian Federation are truly disturbing, and they have attracted the attention of the Moscow media and, one hopes, the Russian government.
The UNESCO site reports that 19 languages spoken on the territory of the Russian Federation a half century ago have ceased to exist, and 117 more are either in a position UN experts say is “unsafe” (21 languages), “definitely endangered” (47), “severely endangered” (29), or “critically endangered” (20).
According to a commentary in “Moskovsky komsomolets,” the languages now “near death” (the UN’s “critically endangered”) include Aleut, Tersko-Saami, and Itelmen, languages spoken by extremely small groups. But among those whose future is “definitely” threatened are Nivkh, Chukchi, and Karelian, the latter two being relatively much larger.
And among the languages in some danger of disappearing are Kalmyk, Udmurt, Yiddish, Chechen, Yakut and Tuvan, now spoken by much larger nations but rapidly losing ground to Russian and English, a development that could but does not necessarily mean the demise of these nations (www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2009/02/20/society/395997/).
Part of the reason for this trend, the Moscow paper says, is the impact of globalization. As people become more mobile, members of smaller groups often are forced to learn a new language, something that can cut them off from their community but also can make them more sensitive to their ethnic attachments.
But in addition to globalization, other factors are at work, “Moskovsky komsomolets” points out. These include the size of the community – smaller linguistic communities generally have a more difficult time than larger ones– the attitudes of the governments under which they live toward their languages, and even the size of the political subdivision in which they live.
If the first of these is intuitively obvious, the second two, the paper suggests, may play a bigger role. When governments work to support languages, these languages survive far longer. And that is why human rights activists have been pressing Moscow to ratify the European Charge on Regional Languages and the Languages of Minorities, something it has not done.
And supporters of language communities and linguistic diversity note that the size of the region or political subdivision within which a group lives plays a key role. The larger the region, the more likely smaller groups are to be overwhelmed by larger ones and the languages of the former give way to that of the latter.
That is why, the paper continues, those who support linguistic diversity as an important human value have opposed Vladimir Putin’s regional amalgamation plan in which smaller non-Russian regions have been folded into larger and predominantly Russian ones, a step that will accelerate the decline and even death of the non-Russian languages.
The Moscow concludes on a pessimistic note: “The chances for saving the dying languages practically do not exist,” and consequently UN experts and other language supporters are calling for the dispatch of linguists to “hot spots” in order to create dictionaries and grammars that might allow these languages to survive or at least give access to their richness.