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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Endagnered languages

From one of my favorite blogs, The Numbers Guy at the Wall Street Journal:

Numbers Guy reader Sabahat Chaudhary noticed the recent spate of press coverage claiming that half of the world’s 7,000 languages are endangered, with one dying every two weeks. The New York Times, the Associated Press and Reuters all reported these alarming statistics, released by linguists associated with the Enduring Voices project, which aims to preserve and document languages.
But not all these threatened languages face equal risks. Linguists do agree that hundreds of languages are nearly certain to expire in the next few decades, but many of the other roughly 3,500 languages defined as endangered have a much better shot. These include languages still spoken regularly in small but stable communities, but considered “endangered” because a natural disaster might wipe out the speakers. Other languages, such as Sora in Eastern India, are defined as “endangered” because city dwellers have shifted away from them, though rural speakers haven’t.
...
These are estimates in a field where exact numbers are difficult to pin down. First, defining a language compared with a dialect is difficult. Two people generally are speaking in dialects if they can understand each other, but Catalan and Spanish qualify as separate languages even though there is generally mutual intelligibility. The distinctions “don’t always jive with socially perceived language barriers that exist in some communities,” Dr. Anderson said. Nonetheless, linguists generally agree that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages in the world — nearly half of them in two diverse language groups, the Austronesian (mainly from Pacific islands) and Niger-Congo. Establishing the extent of language usage is also tricky; relying on national censuses doesn’t suffice because many countries don’t conduct regular counts, and those that do may not report languages spoken by fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, Dr. Anderson said.

Read the whole thing here. It's pretty interesting.

Posted by Will at September 30, 2007 05:20 PM in Anthropology