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Endangered language families

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Item Summary

Title: Endangered language families
Authors: Whalen, D.H.
Simons, Gary
Issue Date: 03 Apr 2009
Abstract: Linguists have been responding to the sharp decline in the number of languages for fifteen years and more now. While individual languages have unique features, language families, by virtue of their shared heritage, often share typologically rare features. The endangerment of entire families, implicit in language loss, has not been explored to date. Here, we use population estimates as an indicator of endangerment of families. Historically, some languages have, seemingly, survived for centuries with only a few thousand speakers. Conversely, a language with a million speakers is endangered if the youngest is 50 years old. The isolation that fostered small languages is an increasingly rare commodity, so small languages are likelier than ever to be endangered. Gordon (2005) reports that 10% of languages have 300,000 or more speakers; Krauss's (1992:7) prediction that this century would "see either the death or the doom of 90% of mankind's languages" would lead us to expect that languages smaller than this would be at risk. More conservative estimates call for a 50% loss (e.g., Crystal 2000:19). There, language families whose largest language has fewer than 7,000 speakers (the median number of speakers; Gordon 2005:15) would be at risk. Using Gordon's (2005) 94 language families, about three-quarters of the world's language families can be classified as endangered. 40% of those language families have their most populous language spoken by fewer than 7,000 speakers; another 33% fall below 300,000 in population. We plan a further analysis using Balthasar and Nichols' (2008) approximately 350 "stocks" (that is, families whose relations can be firmly established by the comparative method). The proportion of endangerment can only increase in those statistics: If we split a family into two stocks, one is bound to have a smaller language as its most populous.Some aspects of language unique to those disappearing families are outlined. Examples are the existence of OVS default word order, elaborated click inventories, grammatical metathesis and obligatory use of evidentials. Renewed efforts at documenting members of those language families seem justified.


BICKEL, BALTHASAR, AND JOHANNA NICHOLS. 2008. The Autotyp genealogical classification. Preprint; published version to appear by September 2008 at< p>CRYSTAL, DAVID. 2000. Language death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

GORDON, RAYMOND G., JR. (ed.) 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, TX: SIL International.

KRAUSS, MICHAEL. 1992. The world's languages in crisis. Language, 68.4-10.
Appears in Collections:1st International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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