The people of the world, who currently number around six billion, speak almost 6,000 different languages. Of these, a mere half-dozen share global dominance.
More than half of the world’s population communicates in Mandarin Chinese (more than one billion speakers), English (over 500 million), Hindi (500 million), Spanish (390 million), Russian (280 million) or Arabic (250 million). However, this does not diminish the ongoing contribution made by thousands of other languages to maintaining the extraordinary diversity of humankind’s linguistic heritage.
Most languages do not enjoy majority status. Their situation varies widely, with more than 3,000 languages now spoken by fewer than 10,000 people.
Some languages –for example Catalan- are spoken by a sizeable population across a relatively large geographical area; they have some scope for development and the support of a stable culture.
Others, however, are spoken by no more than a handful of people living in a limited geographical area or whose minority status is extremely pronounced. Some minority languages have already been severely compromised in their ability to survive and develop. Nothing is more unobtrusive than a dying language –it simply ceases to be talked about. What often marks a language’s disappearance is the awareness, once it’s too late, that it will never be heard again.
For example, by the time these words are published the Zaparo language in Ecuador will have gone for good. By 1999 the only remaining speakers of Zaparo were five very elderly individuals who had no contact with one another. Although this example is far removed from Europe, the Old World is by no means unaffected by the phenomenon.
Fifty kilometres from the Council of Europe’s headquarters in Strasbourg, the Welsche tongue, which is derived from Low Latin and closely related to Swiss Romansch (itself under threat), has practically disappeared. Welsche is now spoken by no more than a few thousand elderly people. For fifty years no one has learned it as their mother tongue –defined as the first language that children hear and speak. In a few decades it will have joined the long list of dead languages, never to return.
These days one language disappears every two weeks, and it is predicted that between 50% and 90% of all existing languages will become extinct during the 21st century.
A UNESCO study of 123 European languages has concluded that nine are all but dead, 26 are approaching extinction and 38 are under threat. This accounts for more than half of the study.
For example, Frisian, a language closely related to English, is now spoken by only 11,000 people in Germany, 9,000 in Schleswig-Holstein and 2,000 in Lower Saxony. However, in the neighbouring Netherlands, it is still spoken by 400,000 people in the province of Friesland.
Consequently, it is only by increasing public awareness of the need to protect the linguistic heritage that Europe can finally start to care for this often-vulnerable legacy.