6,000 Languages: An Embattled Heritage

By Bjeljac-Babic, Ranka | UNESCO Courier, April 2000 | Go to article overview

6,000 Languages: An Embattled Heritage


Bjeljac-Babic, Ranka, UNESCO Courier


Ranka [*] Bjeljac-Babic

Ten languages die out each year. International action is needed to counter this erosion of cultural diversity

Are the vast majority of languages doomed to die out in the near future? Specialists reckon that no language can survive unless 100,000 people speak it. Half of the 6,000 or so languages in the world today are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and a quarter by less than 1,000. Only a score are spoken by hundreds of millions of people.

The death of languages is not a new phenomenon. Since languages diversified, at least 30,000 (some say as many as half a million) of them have been born and disappeared, often without leaving any trace. Languages usually have a relatively short life span as well as a very high death rate. Only a few, including Basque, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit and Tamil, have lasted more than 2,000 years.

Minority languages sidelined

What is new, however, is the speed at which they are dying out. Europe's colonial conquests caused a sharp decline in linguistic diversity, eliminating at least 15 per cent of all languages spoken at the time. Over the last 300 years, Europe has lost a dozen, and Australia has only 20 left of the 250 spoken at the end of the 18th century. In Brazil, about 540 (three-quarters of the total) have died out since Portuguese colonization began in 1530.

The rise of nation-states, whose territorial unity was closely linked to their linguistic homogeneity, has also been decisive in selecting and consolidating national languages and sidelining others. By making great efforts to establish an official language in education, the media and the civil service, national governments have deliberately tried to eliminate minority languages.

This process of linguistic standardization has been boosted by industrialization and scientific progress, which have imposed new methods of communication that are swift, straightforward and practical. Language diversity came to be seen as an obstacle to trade and the spread of knowledge. Monolingualism became an ideal, and at the end of the 19th century the notion of a universal language was born--a return to Latin was even considered--which gave rise to a spate of artificial languages, the first of which was Volapuk. The one that gained the widest acceptance and has survived longest is Esperanto.

More recently, the internationalization of financial markets, the dissemination of information by electronic media and other aspects of globalization have intensified the threat to "small" languages. A language not on the Internet is a language that "no longer exists" in the modern world. It is out of the game. It is not used in business.

The rate of language extinction has now reached the unprecedented worldwide level of 10 every year. Some people predict that 50 to 90 per cent of today's spoken languages will disappear during this century. …

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6,000 Languages: An Embattled Heritage
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