Languages about to be extinct

March 5, 2020
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Worldwide there are 2500 languages at risk, according to research by the UN organization Unesco. Of the approximately 6000 languages spoken worldwide, 199 languages are spoken by less than ten people, and 178 languages by ten to fifty people. More than a dozen languages are still only spoken by one person. A total of 2500 languages are at risk, of which 538 are in critical condition. The latter are only spoken by older people and are no longer passed on to the younger generations.

Puelche, gone for good

We start this list with a language called Puelche, or sometimes Gennaken, Northern Tehuelche or Pampa. So many names for a language that is unfortunately extinct. Moreover, the language is an isolate, so there is no kinship to be found with other languages. No easy reconstruction from knowledge of other languages is therefore possible. The language used to be spoken by the ‘Puelche’ people who lived in the Pampa region of Argentina. Most of the people in this region have now switched to the commonly used Spanish.

Qawasqar, there’s a dozen left

This is the language with the most alternative names on this list. Take for example Alacaluf, Halakwulup, Kaweskar, Alakaluf, Kawaskar, Kawesqar, Qawashqar, Halakwalip, Hekaine, Kaueskar, Aksana or Aksanás. There are more names for the language than there are speakers, it seems. Luckily, there aren’t. In 2006 another 12 speakers of this language were registered. That was in Western Patagonia, on the island of Wellington, near the coast in the south of Chile. Because there are so few speakers left, who all tend to speak Spanish because it is so much easier to communicate with tourists who pass by, the language has been described as ‘almost extinct’.

Tanema, four speakers, or just one?

Tanema is spoken in a village called Emua, on the island of Vanikoro, in the most eastern province (Temotu) of the Solomon Islands. In 2007 four more speakers were reported, but in 2012 there was only one speaker (known to us) while almost all the other people in the region who ever spoke the language switched to Pijjn or Teanu. These languages are ‘more popular’, although we have to be careful with that, because more popular in this case means 800 speakers in the case of Teanu, and as many as 24,000 speakers (as first language) of Pijin. The Tanema language is related to the Polynesian language family, just like Pijjn and Teanu mentioned above.

Tinigua, two speakers left…

There are still two speakers left of the Tinigua language, a language originally spoken by the native people of Columbia, in the river basin Yari. The use of the language declined drastically in the nineteenth century, firstly because ‘rubber’ was discovered and a fierce international market arose, and secondly because the Tinigua people, through their alliance with the Witotos, ended up in a tribal war with the Muinane and Carijona. As a result, they had to leave large areas of their original territory and retreat to the North. Finally, in 1949 they were attacked by (European) settlers, resulting in the extinction of the people as such. In 1994, two brothers were still alive, still able to speak the language… Soon, probably extinct, unless these brothers manage to convince a few more youngsters to learn the language!

Tolowa, back from the dead?

Spoken by a handful of remaining Tolowa Indians, currently living on the Smith River Rancheria, near Crescent City, California. The language is almost extinct. Nevertheless, young people are interested in this language, and are trying to learn it. A good example of one of those languages slowly crawling back from the abyss. There is only one speaker who has mastered the language as his mother tongue, but several people who have mastered the language as a second language and are still quite good at it. So there still is hope, even for a nearly extinct language like this.

Yamana, one speaker

Also known as Tequenica, Yagán, Yaghan or Yahgan, is an indigenous language of the Yagan, a population group in Tierro Del Fuego, Chile. Tierro Del Fuego, also called ‘fire land’, is a group of islands in the southernmost tip of South America, and it was not until 1520 that this country was ‘discovered’ by Europeans. Before that time there were people living there, of course, and one of the indigenous groups were called the Yagan.

Yamana is an isolate, so there is no language related to it, although some linguists have tried to link it to Kawesqar and Chon.

In 2005, 84-year-old Emelinda Acuna, the second to last speaker of this language, passed away. So now there is only one person who speaks the language as her mother tongue. She is Christina Calderon, and Acuna’s sister by marriage. So the life of this language is on the line.

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