Around the world, a spoken language vanishes every two weeks, according to statistics presented at a United Nations conference on indigenous languages. It seems hard to imagine that a group of people would suddenly stop speaking a certain language. But consider this: According to the U.N., most languages are spoken by very few people. About 97 percent of the world’s population speaks just 4 percent of its languages, while 3 percent speaks 96 percent of them.
Languages have been dying for centuries. Around 8,000 BC, Earth was home to more than 20,000 dialects. Today that number stands between 6,000 and 7,000, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lists more than 2,000 of them as vulnerable or endangered.
How do languages die?
There are a few ways for languages to die. The first and most obvious, is if all the people who speak it have died. This may occur, for example, if war or a natural disaster wipes out small populations or tribes in remote areas, like the 2004 earthquake that struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, triggering a tsunami that left 230,000 people dead. Another killer of language is foreign disease. As Mount Holyoke University explains: "By the time of exploration, diseases such as tuberculosis and smallpox had been common in Europe for centuries, meaning that individuals had built antibodies and immunity. When they traveled to foreign lands, they took the diseases with them, infecting indigenous peoples. The inhabitants of the New World had never been exposed to such diseases, and as a consequence, millions died in short periods of time."
But there's a more simple explanation for why languages disappear: people simply stop speaking them. Sometimes people stop speaking a language to avoid political persecution, as was the case in 1932 in El Salvador, when speakers of the indigenous Lenca and Cacaopera languages abandoned them after a massacre in which Salvadoran troops killed tens of thousands of indigenous people. Other times people will abandon a regional dialect in favor of a more common global language, such as English or French, to gain socioeconomic advantages. Gradually, they may lose fluency in their native tongue and stop passing it down to the next generation.
Preserving these languages is important, and UNESCO explains why: “Languages are humankind’s principle tools for interacting and for expressing ideas, emotions, knowledge, memories and values. Languages are also primary vehicles of cultural expressions and intangible cultural heritage, essential to the identity of individuals and groups. Safeguarding endangered language is thus a crucial task in maintaining cultural diversity worldwide.”
Below are five of the thousands of native tongues at risk of never being spoken again.
1. Elfdalian. Believed to be the closest descendant of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, Elfdalian is spoken in the community of Älvdalen in a remote part of Sweden surrounded by mountains, valleys and forests. Its secluded location protected the culture for centuries, but recently locals have taken to using more modern Swedish instead. Recent estimates indicate that fewer than 2,500 people speak Elfdalian, and less than 60 children under the age of 15 are fluent in it.
You can hear it in this video, where two men and two women read from a text:
2. Marshallese. On the Marshall Islands, a chain of coral atolls that sit between Australia and Hawaii, the population is leaving in droves due to climate change and rising sea levels. Locals speak Marshallese, and as Grist reports, the largest population of Marshallese people outside of the islands is in Springdale, Arkansas. There, immigrants tend to assimilate and will likely lose their language within a few generations.
“There’s definitely the sense that if you don’t speak Marshallese, you’re not really a Marshallese person,” Peter Rudiak-Gould, an anthropologist who has studied the Marshall Islands for 10 years, told Grist. “The culture couldn’t really survive without language.” He added: “Anywhere there’s a coral atoll and a unique cultural group on that atoll, there’s that potential for mass migration and extinction of languages.”
Listen to three girls sing a song in Marshallese:
3. Wintu. The Wintu are a tribe of Native Americans who live in Northern California's Sacramento Valley. As settlers and foreign disease invaded their lands and killed their people, the tribe's population dwindled from 14,000 down to 150, where it stands today. According to UNESCO, only one fluent speaker remains along with several semi-speakers.
The struggle to preserve a centuries-old way of life in modern times is on display in this video, which shows a man singing a Wintu song while kids look disinterested and a woman chatters in the background about letting her fingernails grow longer.
4. Tofa. Also known as Karagas, this Siberian language is spoken in Russia's Irkutsk Oblast by the Tofalars. UNESCO lists it as critically endangered with about 40 speakers. The three remote villages in the Eastern Sayan mountain range that use this language are difficult to access, which has been both a blessing and a curse. While it helped preserve their culture, there are now no schools and most children attend Russian boarding schools (and speak Russian), according to Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine. With no new generation learning the language, it's unlikely to survive.
Listen to it here, while you can:
5. Aka. In India, Aka is spoken in Arunachal Pradesh, the country's northeasternmost state. As National Geographic reports, it's reachable only via a five-hour drive through the jungle. The village is entirely self-sufficient: They grow their own food, kill their own animals and build their own houses. But despite the remote location, Aka's youth no longer learn he formal language and instead learn Hindi, which they hear on TV, and English, which they use in schools. There are now only a few thousand speakers.
In another blend of old-world and modern day, two young men rap in Aka in this video: