Endangered languages: does the size matter?

Apr 22, 2011 by

In the latest posting, I discussed the issue of endangered languages. One interesting question to ask in this connection is whether the size of a given language (i.e., how many people speak it) matters as far as the level of danger the language is in. It is often believed that a language must get progressively smaller and smaller before it becomes endangered and ultimately dies, but the truth of the matter is very different.

But let’s first consider the median size of a language. Population clocks indicate the current world population to be around 6.9 billion. The Ethnologue lists 7,413 languages. Divide one number by the other and we get the average language size to be 930,000 speakers per language. However, because there are many more smaller languages, the median size of the world’s language is only 7,560 speakers per language. In other words, half of the world’s languages have more than 7,560 speakers and half of the language — less.

As one would expect, UNESCO’s list of endangered languages contains plenty of smaller languages, some having as few as a hundred speakers (e.g., Itelmen, a “critically endangered” Chukotko-Kamchatkan language spoken in the Kamchatka Peninsula of the Russian Far East), ten speakers (e.g., Amur Manchu, another “critically endangered” language of the Russian Far East, of the Tungusic language family) or even just one speaker (e.g., Bikya, yet another “critically endangered” language, of the Niger-Congo family, spoken in Cameroon).

But on the other hand, there is a large number of “larger” languages in the endangered languages list. Hovering near the world’s median language size are such endangered languages as Cabécar, a “vulnerable” languages spoken by 7,622 speakers in the Turrialba region of Costa Rica, of the Chibchan language family; Awa Cuaiquer, a “severely endangered” language spoken by 7,500 speakers on the Pacific slopes of Andes in Colombia and Equador, of the Barbacoan language family; and Lishana Deni (Israel), a “severely endangered” Semitic language spoken by 7,500 speakers in and around Jerusalem.

As you can see from this example, languages of approximately the same size may belong to different endangerment categories, even though there is a correlation between the language size and the degree of its endangerment: the fewer speakers a language has, the more endangered it is likely to be. But there are exceptions to this generalization. Some very “small” languages are listed merely as “vulnerable” and not as “definitely” or “severely” or “critically endangered”. Listed by UNESCO in their “vulnerable” category are Gurrgoni, a Gunwingguan language of Australian Aborigines with merely 60 speakers; Awera, a Lakes Plain language of Indonesia with just 70 speakers; and Itik, a Tor-Kwerba language of Indonesia with only 80 speakers.

On the other hand, some of “large” and even “huge” languages are included in the endangered language list. The top spot on the list is given to South Italian, a “vulnerable” Romance variety with 7.5 million speakers! Other Romance languages with millions of speakers in the “vulnerable” or “definitely endangered” category include Sicilian with 5 million speakers and Lombard with 3.5 million, as well as Emilian-Romagnol, Piedmontese and Venetan with 2 million speakers each. The Germanic family also has several endangered languages with millions of speakers: Low Saxon with 4.8 million speakers, Yiddish with 3 million speakers, and Limburgian-Ripuarian with 2.6 million speakers. Other Indo-European languages at the top of the endangered languages list are Belorussian (4 million), Romani (3.5 million) and Zazaki, a Kurdish variety spoken in Turkey (2 million). And the large endangered languages are not limited to the Indo-European language family either. Take, for example, Gondi, a Dravidian language with 2.7 million speakers in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states of India, or Quechua of Southern Bolivia with 2.3 million speakers.

While most languages at the top of the list are merely “vulnerable”, some very large languages belong to other categories of endangerment. The largest “definitely endangered” language is Lombard, the largest “severely endangered” language is Picard (one of the Langue d’Oil languages spoken by 700,000 speakers in Picardy, France), and the largest “critically endangered” language is another Romance language of the Langue d’Oc variety: Provençal (150,000 speakers). While 150,000 may seem a very small number compared to the 3.5 million (speakers of Lombard), recall that the median size of the world’s language is just 7,560 speakers, so Provençal still has nearly 20 times more speakers than the world’s median language size.

The take-home message: while the size of a language may be a contributing factor in its endangerment, the size alone doesn’t determine the fate of a language. Other cultural and socio-political factors play a role as well in the parents’ decisions on whether to speak in a given language to their children, and when they decide not to, the possibility of language death looms large.

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