Combating climate change is a Herculean task, but one that can't be ignored if life on earth is to be preserved for future generations. Linguists currently face a similar challenge: Without human intervention, experts estimate that nearly half the world's 6,800 spoken languages will go the way of the dinosaurs, vanishing by the close of the 21st century.
In response to this crisis, armies of academics, independent researchers, and charitable organizations like Wikitongues have pledged to save the world's vanishing vernaculars, searching out the last living speakers and documenting their every word. The most vulnerable of these are termed “critically endangered,” meaning they are familiar only to the most elderly members of a particular population, and may not be spoken fluently or regularly.
Starting with this definition and the “UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger,” Stacker has scoured newspapers and magazine articles, academic journals, and online databases to compile this list of 30 of the world's most endangered languages.
Read on to find out if your ancestor's native tongue—or maybe even your own—will survive.
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One of five Samoyed languages native to Siberia and the Arctic, Forest Enets is spoken by fewer than 15 people—mostly reindeer herders and fishermen from the tiny Russian village of Potapovo. This endangered, indigenous tongue may just survive thanks to recent preservation efforts, including the creation of a “language nest” immersion kindergarten and easily accessible instructive videos.
Bathari is a Semitic language of south Arabic origin. At present, it is spoken by fewer than 20 people in a small fishing community on the southwest coast of Oman. Economic and educational opportunities available to Arabic speakers have led the younger generation to abandon their native tongue. Recently, the London Middle East Institute has made significant efforts to document Bathari, collecting more than 2,000 recordings of elderly native speakers.
Despite the presence of bilingual signs in local stores and language instruction in some local schools, Boruca is a rapidly disappearing tongue. Today there are fewer than 20 native speakers, all elderly, living in the Puntarenas Province on Costa Rica's Pacific coast.
Like a Phoenix from the ashes, this ancient tongue has risen from the dead. Dolly Pentreath, thought to be the last native speaker, died at the close of the 18th century. Thanks to the broad revival of Celtic culture in the early 20th century, more than 500 residents of Britain's southwestern county identified Cornish as their primary language in the 2011 census. Cornish is taught in local schools, and can also be heard on BBC Radio Cornwall.
This dialect of Gagauz is spoken by fewer than 100 people, mostly elderly, in the Deliorman region of Bulgaria. An ethnically Turkish people, the Gagauz roamed what is now Eastern Europe, settling in present-day Moldova, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Unlike its Moldovan cousin, which has enjoyed a revival in the independent province of Gagauzia, there exists no similar movement in Bulgaria and as a result, Balkan Gagauz risks extinction in the coming decades. Recordings of the language are available on YouTube.
Originally spoken in Asia Minor, and subsequently, by Greeks of Cappadocian origin, this medieval dialect was thought to have vanished by the mid-20th century. However, in 2005, Professor Mark Janse of the University of Ghent uncovered a cluster of approximately 200 Cappadocian speakers in isolated communities on the Greek mainland. The award-winning documentary, “Last Words,” chronicles Janse's discovery. Cambridge University academic Ioanna Sitaridou also recorded her conversations with native speakers.
Native speakers of this rapidly disappearing language originally hail from a pocket of Germanic immigrants in Slovenia, and were subsequently scattered across the globe after World War II. Although a thriving community of Gottscheer and their descendants settled in Queens, N.Y., fewer than 100 people are estimated to speak Gottscheerish fluently. Efforts are being made to preserve the dialect, like this video recording of a conversation between two native speakers.
More than 10 million ethnic Manchurians live in China, yet fewer than 20 elderly villagers in the northeastern part of the country can speak Manchu. Manchurian emperors reigned over China for almost 300 years, going to great lengths to preserve their ethnic identity. The fall of the dynasty in 1911, resulted in the acculturation of the Manchurian people, who increasingly adopted Chinese languages and customs. With only one local elementary school offering limited lessons in the language, scholars are not optimistic about Manchu's survival. The 2012 video documentary “The Last Emperor” features interviews with Manchu speakers.
In 1992, Swedish academic Éva Csató Johanson discovered a population of approximately 60 Karaim speakers living in the Lithuanian town of Trakai. Previously thought to have been extinct, Karaim is a Turkic language with Hebrew influences traditionally known as “lashon kedar”—“language of the nomads.” In her efforts to preserve the language, Johanson spoke only Karain with her subjects. Karaim is now taught both in summer schools and also at the University of Uppsala. A channel dedicated to Karaim folksongs is available on YouTube.
The tropical paradise of Hawaii boasts a particularly mellifluous native tongue. With fewer than a thousand fluent speakers, however, Hawaiian is a critically endangered language. After American annexation, the Hawaiian language was banned in the island's schools for 90 years. By the 1980s, few people could speak the language, prompting the establishment of Hawaiian immersion pre-schools, to help preserve the tongue for future generations. Duolingo, a free app available for both iOS and Android may just change that. Additionally, the language learning app Drops has recently added Hawaiian to their list of offerings.
Tsakonian, which originated in the Greek military state of Sparta, is spoken by about 300 people living in a just a few mountainous villages on the eastern Peloponnesus. Panagiotis Tsagouris, a teacher who grew up speaking Tsakonian, has enlisted his students' help in updating the Tsakonian dictionary, in an effort to preserve the tongue. Wikitongues has also produced video recordings of native speakers.
Spoken by only about 20 inhabitants of a reindeer herding community in Swedish Lapland, Pite Saami is a Uralic language that has no official written form. In the mid-20th century, public policy demanded the unilateral adoption of Swedish, and students were often banned from speaking Pite Saami at school. Video recordings of reindeer herders speaking Pite Saami are part of the larger efforts of the Freiberg Research Group to preserve this vanishing tongue.
For thousands of years, the Yamana people lived in the southern tip of Argentina, speaking their native language, Yaghan. Today, only one native speaker remains: 90-year-old Cristina Calderon, who can be heard speaking Yaghan in a documentary. Although Calderon grew up speaking Yaghan, her children preferred Spanish to their native tongue, which was frequently target for derision. The tide, however, has begun to turn. Chile now encourages indigenous languages, including the instruction of Yaghan in local kindergartens.
Kristina Esau, 84, is one of the only living speakers of Nluu: the indigenous language of the South African San people. Notable for its distinctive “clicking sound,” Nluu and its speakers were vilified by Dutch settlers, forcing most of the San to adopt Afrikaans. Esau, however, is on a one-woman crusade to save the dying language, teaching it to local children. Nluu is spoken in the PBS documentary, “The Linguists.”
Louisiana Spanish, like Louisiana Creole, has been identified by UNESCO as a critically endangered language. With only a handful of fluent speakers, however, Louisiana Spanish is the more vulnerable of the two. A patois with Cajun, English, and Portuguese elements, it evolved from the parlance of 18th-century immigrants from the Canary Islands, known as “Isleños.” Louisiana Spanish can be heard primarily in the southern parish of St. Bernard, notably in the distinctively Isleño satirical ballads known as décimas.
Votic—also known as Vote or Votian—is a Uralic language closely related to Estonian. Banned by the Soviets in the 1930s, Votic survives in several, small Russian villages to the west of St. Petersburg, where it is spoken by just eight ethnically Finnish Vods. A recently opened museum in Luzhitsy offers language instruction as part of a larger effort to preserve what remains Votic culture. Russian folk group Bestiarium recorded an album of traditional Votic songs.
Nataoran, a Formosan language belonging to indigenous tribes on Taiwan's eastern coast, has fewer than 600 speakers. In 2017, the Taiwanese government allocated funding for the preservation of its critically endangered languages, which includes publishing documents in languages other than Mandarin.
Nuxalk, also known as Bella Coola, is spoken by a small number of native North Americans in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Church-run residential schools once prohibited indigenous students from speaking their native tongue. Consequently, only 17 people spoke Nuxalk fluently as of 2017. Today, the Nuxalk are determined to protect the language, preserving voice recordings and teaching Nuxalk in local schools. The tribe also has plans to create children's books, CDs, and videos in the Nuxalk tongue.
In China's autonomous Macau region, locals are fighting to hold onto Patuá, a blend of Portuguese and Cantonese spoken by approximately 50 members of Macau's indigenous Eurasian community. Elderly Macanese who grew up with Patuá at home retain a knowledge of the language, despite being forced to abandon it in favor of Portuguese at school. Faced with the threat of extinction from increasing Chinese assimilation, actions are being taken to preserve Patuá—and Macanese culture as a whole—including the formation of the Patuá-language drama group, “Doci Papiaçam di Macau.”
The inhabitants of India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands are famously hostile to outsiders, as the recent murder of an American missionary attests. The Shompen, an indigenous people with pre-Neolithic roots that inhabit the region are dwindling in number, and consequently, their native tongue is spoken by only 200 people. Recently, the Indian government has proposed setting up academic departments at universities to study Shompen and other critically at-risk indigenous languages.
Grizelda Kristina, the last fluent speaker of Livonian, died in Canada in 2013. Thanks to her efforts, however, Livonian, a Uralic language similar to Finnish and Estonian, lives on, albeit on life support. Kristina, who was born in a small Latvian fishing village, recorded her native tongue for researchers. Today, Livonian is growing as a second language among ethnic Livonians eager to preserve their cultural heritage. The 1991 documentary, “Livonian Lives,” preserves footage of native Livonian speakers.
As of 2005, there were only five people in the world who could speak Arabana, one of Australia's several critically endangered languages. In recent years, the University of Adelaide's Mobile Language Team has brought together the handful of remaining fluent speakers to lead “revival workshops” aimed at preserving the Arabana tongue for future generations. Arabana language lessons are also available on the the Mobile Language Team website.
Although the last native Manx speaker, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974, this Gaelic tongue was miraculously resurrected on Britain's Isle of Man by concerned locals. Recordings made by Maddrell before his death documented the language, serving as a valuable resource for new learners. Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, an immersive Manx primary school, has created a generation of new native speakers. It is estimated that more than 1,800 people now have some level of proficiency in the language.
Japan's indigenous Ainu people speak a language unrelated to any other. In 1996, fewer than 20 people spoke Ainu, which has not been employed conversationally since the 1950s. What remains of Japan's long-oppressed Ainu population is centered on the island of Hokkaido, where villages are taking steps to preserve their mother tongue, including documentary footage of elderly speakers, and young parents consciously raising their children as native Ainu speakers.
Cambap, also known as Twendi, is spoken by fewer than 30 people living in two small villages in Cameroon. As with many other disappearing tongues, those with knowledge of Cambap are of advanced age, with younger generations favoring more widely spoken languages.
Nez Perce, or Nimipuutimt, is just one of many rapidly disappearing Native American tongues, with fewer than 20 fluent speakers as of 2007. The Nez Perce Language Program, based in Idaho, is battling the language's demise with technology—notably a learning app available on Apple and Android devices.
Gyani Maiya Sen, an elderly Nepalese woman, is one of the last two speakers of Kusunda, an enigmatic tongue of unknown origin that has mystified linguists for decades. Kusunda appears to have developed in complete isolation, as it bears no relationship to any of the 20 known language families. Scholars are working at a rapid pace to document Kusunda, including this video of Sen speaking her native tongue.