6,000 Languages: An Embattled Heritage

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

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

6,000 Languages: An Embattled Heritage


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?