Sometimes it feels like we spend a lot of time talking about languages that everyone knows about. Your biggies. Your French, German, English, Chinese etc. But if only a tiny fraction of the world’s languages make up for more than half of it’s population, we must be missing something.
Amid these throngs of dominant state and global languages can be found the remnants of cultures that might be all but unknown; their people and ways of life forgotten, reviled or assimilated into mainstream society.
These little pockets of diversity can be found almost everywhere on Earth, but most of them go unseen or unheard by those of us who do not live nearby, and even some that lie right on our doorsteps are overlooked by their own neighbors.
Some readers may have heard of some of these languages, but I’d be willing to bet that most have not. This is not a call to arms nor a plea for revitalization; merely an attempt to reveal ten minority languages from around the world that deserve to have their names, and perhaps some of their stories, mentioned.
1). Cayuga belongs to the Northern Iroquoian language family – a division of languages native to the North East and at times part of the Northern Mid-West of what is now The United States.
The Cayuga people are native to the Finger Lakes region of Central New York. Today their language contains only about 250 fluent speakers located mostly in Southern Ontario along with several other First Nations peoples including the other five Iroquois nations in what is the largest communal native nation in Canada.
A growing revitalization effort has been in place since 1986, teaching the language in a full immersion setting to high school students and more recently elementary students with some success. Unfortunately Canada made a massive cut to their indigenous language immersion program funding several years ago that resulted in devastation for the Cayuga language.
Random fact: I was born and raised, and still live, in Ithaca, NY located at the Southern tip of Cayuga Lake and originally part of the Cayuga Nation. We grow up learning about the Cayuga and the Iroquois nations so this language, despite not being related to my own heritage, and despite its speakers no longer really living in New York, is somewhat special to me.
Check out the video for an opportunity to hear Cayuga and witness the revitalization efforts.
2). Daur is a Mongolic language spoken primarily in China and Mongolia by a bit fewer than 100,000 people out of a total ethnic population of around 134,000. Listed by UNESCO as “definitely endangered” the Daur people are, like so many other minority languages, succumbing to mainstream languages such as Mandarin and Mongolian. Daur has no written tradition, its people instead using either Chinese or Mongolian languages for the purposes of written communication.
Khorloogiin Choibalsan, a Mongolian dictator and communist leader who rose to power in the wake of the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century was an ethnic Daur. He is credited with turning Mongolia into the first satellite nation of the USSR and was very close with Stalin and responsible for many of the ethnic purges of various regional peoples. Nice guy, huh?
3). Homshetsi, sometimes considered to be a dialect of Armenian, is a minority language located in small pockets along the Eastern coast of the Black Sea in Turkey, Abkhazia and Russia.
Also classified as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO, the speaker count for this language remains mostly unknown, most likely due to state subjugation and the fragmented nature of the population that lives across multiple countries.
One Ethnologue estimate places the fluent population around 130,000 speakers, but this data seems speculative at best. Without a written tradition until the mid 1990s, Homshetsi (also called Hamshen) is only partially mutually intelligible with Western Armenian, making the lines between language and dialect – as always – rather blurry.
|Language map including the locations where Hamshetsi is spoken.|
4). Nheengatu is a Native American language indigenous to Brazil. Unless you’re Brazilian, this language is likely not one you’ve heard very much about. As with many endangered indigenous or minority languages – especially those located in the Amazon Rainforest, Nheengatu’s speaker count is somewhat debatable. Ethnologue states that around 10,000 speakers of this language remain, primarily in North Western Brazil, Venezuela and parts of Colombia.
Nheengatu was actually created by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century in order to establish a lingua franca among the tribes that spoke over 700 languages that lived within Portuguese dominion. The language is primarily based on Tupi, an extinct indigenous language that inspired the occasional nickname “Modern Tupi”.
5). Texistepec, Popoluca is a moribund language belonging to the Zoquean language family and native to the small community of the same name – Texistepec, located outside Veracruz, Mexico. With around 400 speakers, 100 of whom are native speakers,Texistepec ranks high among Mexico’s many highly endangered languages.
It is believed that all speakers of this critically endangered language were over the age of 50 in 2000, making its chances of survival extraordinarily slim. Since then some reports have suggested that there may be as many as 240 speakers today due to revitalization efforts. Despite these efforts, the language appears to be failing as the younger generation is adopting Spanish rather than the language of their grandparents.
6). Selkup is a widely scattered Eastern Uralic language of around 1,500 speakers living in Northern Russia. The dialect continuum of Selkup is so vast that the speakers – spread over a very large yet sparsely populated region – are actually mutually unintelligible to one another.
Although almost 4,000 ethnic Selkups remain, virtually none of the younger population actively speak the language among themselves, favoring Russian instead. In the Northern regions in which Selkup is spoken, children are still taught the language through the fourth grade. Selkup, like most Russian minority languages, uses the Cyrillic alphabet.
Most of the languages in the Uralic family – shown below – are endangered or moribund, the most notable exceptions being Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian – none of which are classified as threatened. It would be reasonable to include most of this language family on a list of languages you’ve probably never heard of.
Only around 25 million speakers belong to this group, of which 14 million speak Hungarian, 5 million speak Finnish and 1.3 million speak Estonian. You see the problem here.
|Uralic Language Family Map with Selkup Shown in Orange|
7). Ithkuil: Because every once in a while we need to include something different. Ithkuil is a constructed language, kind of like Esperanto, except that it was created with an entirely different goal in mind. This conlang is more of an exercise in theoretical and philosophical language and grammar construction than its auxiliary language counterpart.
Because of its nature, Ithkuil is often considered to be one of the most grammatically complex languages to have ever existed, to the point where it is unlikely that a natural language could compete – and that was kind of the point.
Created by John Quijada between 1978 and 2011, the language made its first appearance on the Internet in 2004 and has been ferociously rattling the brains of linguists, philosophers, hobbyists and conlangers ever since, particularly in Russia where the language experiences increased popularity. Currently there are no people able to speak Ithkuil fluently, including its creator, Quijada.
In case it wasn’t obvious, Ithkuil isn’t an endangered language. It doesn’t have native speakers and therefore it cannot lose them. Just to be clear – I’m not suggesting you learn this language, you can try if you really want, but mostly that would be ridiculous.
Did I mention it looks like something straight out of science fiction?
8). Tosu (Duoxu) is the most endangered language on the Tibetan Plateau, a region with a few dozen indigenous languages besides Tibetan – essentially all of which are in danger of being supplanted by larger languages.
According to anthropologist Gerald Roche the number of Tosu speakers is now so low that it could “fit into a large SUV”. With only 9 remaining speakers, the severity of this language’s lifespan is no joke. Along with Tosu, 6 other severely endangered languages in Tibet altogether comprise an absurdly low number of speakers faced with total assimilation into the mainstream.
Tosu belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, along with Mandarin Chinese and many other East Asian languages.
Of this Roche says:
“The 7 most endangered languages each have less than 3,000 speakers. Less than 7,000 people speak these 7 languages in total. That’s under half the people who visit the Louvre Museum on an average day”.
Watch this video for audio clips of various endangered Tibetan languages:
9). Wagiman is yet another morbidly moribund language with an absurdly low speaker count that makes you want to book a flight Down Under ASAP. Indigenous to Northern Australia, Wagiman can boast a whopping ten living speakers, all of them – you guessed it – not exactly spring chickens. Wagiman seems to cause some debate when it comes to classification.
The general consensus these days seems to identify the aboriginal language as an isolate, which is always fascinating, though some linguists have attempted to link it to the nearby Gunwinyguan language and its family.
Wagiman makes use of a relatively rare linguistic feature called a coverb; frequently associated with Northern Australian languages, Hungarian and Chinese. A coverb is an additional word that modifies a verb. Usually, coverbs are grouped with inflecting verbs from a closed class to then create a complex predicate. The coverb assists the actual verb in creating situational syntax.
|Location of the Andaman Isles|
10). Bo (Great Andamanese/Indian) is an extinct language indigenous to India’s Andaman Islands.The last Bo speaker, Boa Sr. died in 2010 at the age of 85(ish) having had no one to speak her native language with for over 30 years prior to her own death. Boa Sr. was forced to learn a new language – an Andamanese version of Hindi – in order to continue to communicate within her own community and country.
The Great Andamanese tribe that once boasted around 5,000 ethnic members in the 18th century, prior to colonization, can now claim only 52 individuals, mostly children, none of whom can speak the language of their ancestors.
The loss of this language is of significant anthropological and linguistic importance due to the relative isolation under which the Andamanese have lived for as many as 70,000 years.
The language’s relative longevity gives evolutionary anthropologists and biologists, archaeologists, historical linguists and others a window into the early human migration across Southern Asia tens of thousands of years ago.
But go figure – Bo, as with most endangered indigenous languages, has never had a known literary tradition, and with the death of Boa Sr., the language is more or less lost to the world forever. Linguists worked with Boa Sr. to construct a dictionary towards the end of her life, but the work remains incomplete.
Check out the video to hear the language as spoken by its last speaker.
Endangered language documentation is truly an urgent race against time. Most of us will never take the time to learn a language that is not directly beneficial to our general surroundings; that doesn’t have a relative abundance of speakers. Most of us do not belong to indigenous ethnicities and wilt under the suggestion that we should adopt these languages. And it’s hard to blame us.
It is not my goal to tell you to run out and learn any of these languages; only to arouse interest in those that are dying and that have come before. Language documentation does not mean learning a language, it means writing it down.
Preserving the knowledge that would otherwise go unheard of. However it’s a lot like counting all of the books in a library while the building burns down around us.
Are you learning any of these? Got more you’d like us to highlight? Leave a comment below!
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