29 November 2003
As many as half of all known languages may die out during the next century. That figure is already staggering, but paired with the estimate of 6,800 believed to be spoken today, it represents a looming cultural catastrophe. In a world where languages with less than 10 million speakers are considered to be "minor" or "obscure" languages by many people, the world's native and regional languages are threatened. According to NPR, Alaskan natives are working to preserve the 20 native languages still spoken there, which many fear will lose their remaining speakers in coming decades. 10% of all languages currently spoken are spoken by less than 100 individuals.
YourDictionary.com maintains an "Endangered Language Repository", providing information on endangered, dying and extinct languages. This resource lists 154 native languages still spoken in North America, compared with the estimated 300 which would have been spoken 500 years ago. When languages are lost, the cultural fabric of a people or a continent can shift dramatically. Daniel Everett, of the University of Manchester, describes this loss in his report "From Threatened Languages to
Language is a vital human endeavor, and in many ways the root of the human experience and our shared condition. The loss of more localized languages leaves populations of people with no direct cultural context within which to identify themselves and their experience. In such a climate of community breakdown, the larger cultural fabric also suffers this loss of overall coherence, along with the loss of language-specific concepts, philosophies and solutions.