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Endangered languages — Overview

Resources for information about and the study of endangered languages

Why is this an important topic?

" Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain" -- National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project


Welcome to the Endangered Languages Subject Guide. This guide highlights some of the many resources that are available to assist you in your researches on Endangered Languages.

What is an endangered language?  There is surprisingly little consensus, even in the terms which are used to discuss them.  One may also find references to dying languages, vanishing languages, language obsolescence, and language attrition.  In addition, anthropological linguistics is often  used to discuss linguistic minorities.  

In the United Nations Education, Scientific and  Cultural Organization (UNESCO) document Language Vitality and Endangerment (2003), nine criteria are listed for determining a language's vitality:

  1. Intergenerational language transmission
  2. Absolute number of speakers
  3. Proportion of speakers existing within the total (global) population
  4. Language use within existing contexts and domains
  5. Response to language use in new domains and media
  6. Availability of materials for language education and literacy
  7. Government and institutional language policies
  8. Community attitudes toward their language
  9. Amount and quality of documentation

At the same time, these criteria are not absolute. A vital language may have a relatively small number of speakers, and a language with a large number of speakers may be at risk of being diluted to the point of non-recognition.  In On the Death and Life of Languages, Claude Hagege recognizes this, stating that "languages accompany human groups. They disappear with them; or, on the contrary, if those groups are large and quick to spread beyond their original environment, the languages can be dispersed, in their wake, over vast territories" (p. 3),  


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Richard Bleiler
Homer Babbidge Library, U-1005R, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269