June 29

Inuit children Photo Credit: NOAA.

Science Fact

Extinct Languages

Of the 7,000 languages still spoken today, one goes extinct every two weeks.

It's a fate worse than Latin, the language of the Romans, which was spoken for centuries and which served as the basis for many European languages. Latin is merely dead -- there are no native speakers of Latin, but plenty of people still learn it. When no one even bothers to learn a language anymore, it's declared extinct.

More and more people are speaking common languages, which on the face of things seems to be a good thing. Being able to express yourself across borders and boundaries is a good thing. However, as languages die out, they take with them words (and sometimes whole philosophies) that express meaning in their cultures. Plus, many endangered languages are oral languages without a written component. This means that as their speakers die off, so, too, do the stories of their people and places.

Mandarin speakers number more than 845 million, and English 328 million. The 85 most popular languages worldwide encompass 78% of the world's population. Some of the most endangered languages have only a handful of speakers. In Central Siberia, there are only 25 mostly elderly people left who know the Tofa language. The last known speaker of the Aka-Bo language in India died in 2010. To prevent a similar language death, the state of Hawaii, where native speakers number fewer than 1,000, is working hard to teach its children Hawaiian in school.

Experts predict that by 2100, more than half the languages currently spoken on earth may have died out. Linguists estimate that they have not yet adequately documented 85% of our current tongues.

Check out these Science NetLinks resources on linguistics and at-risk languages:

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