Living Languages - and Dead Ones

Languages of the World

Ethnologue, part of SIL International, has published a map that gives an overview of the world's languages (Ethnologue, 2019; cf. also Note 2). However, this map and Ethnologue's work in general is marked as much by what is not addressed. In particular, there are the numerous cases of endangered languages (Wikipedia, "Endangered language"), language attrition (Wikipedia, "Language attrition"), language shift (Wikipedia, "Language shift"), and, saddest of all, language extinction or death (Wikipedia, "Language death").

Before addressing the Ethnologue article in more detail, a few facts need to be established (Ethnologue, 2019; UNESCO, n.d.; Wikipedia, "Endangered language"; cf. also Note 3):

  • There are more than 6,000 (maybe as much as 7,000) languages in the world,
  • The around 20 most common languages have more than 50 million speakers each,
  • These 20 most common languages are spoken by 50% of the world's population,
  • The majority of languages have less than 10,000 speakers (most have much fewer speakers),
  • 0.2% of the languages are spoken by half of the world's population,
  • 96% of the languages are spoken by 4% of the world's population,
  • There are around 120-140 scripts and alphabets in the world, many of them endangered,
  • Almost 50% of all languages are endangered,
  • Around 25 languages go extinct each year, and
  • Between 50% and 80% of all languages will have disappeared by year 2100.

Ethnologue: Brief Facts

These facts address aspects of languages which appear to not be covered well, or else are under-communicated (Note 4):

  1. The definition of a "language" is very broad, with dialects defined as languages. An example: Sylheti is by many in Bangladesh understood as a dialect,
  2. New and constructed languages are covered, specifically the many sign languages,
  3. The broad definition of a language leads to a focus on total number of languages,
  4. Language death is under-communicated,
  5. The number of languages in the world appears to increase when in reality it decreases dramatically,
  6. No up-front reference is made to the fact that many endangered languages are spoken by very few persons,
  7. Many increasingly use languages that differ from their mother tongues,
  8. Mother tongues contain an increasing number of foreign words. This impacts culture, and more so in the case of marginal languages,
  9. The reasons why languages become endangered and disappear are hardly addressed, and
  10. The focus is on languages per se, not on scripts and alphabets, including the relations between languages and scripts/alphabets.

Ethnologue: Detailed Arguments

Languages, together with scripts and alphabets, have been disappearing throughout history, and for a variety of reasons. What is different today is that more languages disappear, and disappear faster, than before. The main causes for this are globalization, imperialism, neo-colonialism, and linguicide (Wikipedia, "Endangered Language"; cf. also Note 5). These factors have in common that they spearhead the spread of colonial languages, and through this ravage especially small cultures and their languages. Moreover, this is not only a question of survival or death. Perhaps more important is that the small languages that survive are often drastically changed, with loss of many words, simplifications in grammar, etc, and, crucially, introductions of many words from surrounding majority languages (see below for details).

The World Economic Forum has published an article based on Ethnologue data (Wolff, 2019; cf. also Note 6), addressing the situation in Africa. A key argument here is a call for increased understanding and recognition of the term "multilingualism". Ways in which endangered languages can be supported are presented, but it is far from clear what they are. They represent good observations, but the arguments are rather vague, and the conclusions are not drawn far enough. Some of the arguments and ideas are partly incorrect. Two examples:

  1. It is argued that now is "an opportune time to examine how best [African] languages ought to be re-empowered through intellectualization...". I find no details about this "intellectualization", and this is in any case hardly what is needed, and
  2. It is furthermore argued that "most countries on the continent are home to several indigenous languages and governments did not want to cause conflicts by prioritizing one over another". This is, at best, only partly correct. In several countries the majority ethnic group prefer to use its own language, to the detriment of all other languages.

Further, the article gives little focus to the dire straits that many languages are in, with many being beyond salvation. Around 25 languages become extinct each year.

The perhaps main problem I have with this article is that, readers being readers, those that access the article will look at the map first, and may not take time to read the article. In this way they are left with a world map full of coloured dots which is, at best, an incorrect representation of the real situation. Many among them will conclude that all is well. In communicating via the written word and social media, it is crucial to present the important news up front, and certainly not to hide them. In this case, the fact that sign languages are counted is NOT important. What IS important is that languages spoken by small ethnic minorities disappear on a regular basis. The speakers may or may not die, but their languages do, and those that live have to resort to using other languages, oftentimes a colonial language, and/or one spoken by a neighboring majority group.

Wolff (2019) refers to an article that is worthy of some comments (Wolff 2018). I agree that the multiple languages in Africa could be a powerful resource, but this is not the reality at the present time. Wolff's approach amounts to presenting a positive picture of the present situation, as well as of the future. He refers to a "renaissance" for languages. I understand this to mean a multitude of cultures, "multilingualism" as it is referred to, all Africans living happily side by side, each communicating in their vernacular languages. I may be a pessimist, but I believe the future for African languages, as for endangered languages elsewhere, could not be further removed from this optimistic scenario. The article's focus on education, and of educating African youth, seems to be aimed at the university level. At that age, many will already have been socialized into using one of the colonial languages, often coupled with a wish to emulate the culture in the global North. To try and reverse this, working at the university level will likely be a futile exercise. Multilingualism is a great idea and ideal, but achieving it is easier said than done.

I have worked on a World Bank primary education project in Vietnam that aimed at introducing bilingual teaching of children from the many ethnic minorities that live in the highlands. This has a fair chance of succeeding as it starts at the primary school level. A further example: As a Norwegian, I had to learn two Norwegian written languages. Needless to say, nobody found it a good idea to learn a second written language, and many sabotaged it. This drives home the fact that introducing such curricula have to be based on voluntary efforts in order to give it a chance of succeeding.

A key argument for why a focus on developing multilingualism at the university level should be pursued, is given in a reference to countries and regions in the global North, including China, Europe, Japan, North America, Russia, and South Korea, where "schools' language of instruction is children's mother tongue" (Wolff, 2018). However, in several of these countries there are ethnic/cultural minorities that have a mother tongue they hardly speak any longer, as a result of acculturation and assimilation, so to say that the language of instruction is their mother tongue may be stretching the truth. In many of these countries the process of acculturation and assimilation have proceeded so far that the mother tongue is reduced to being used between family members and within the house, and not for external activities like subsistence practices, economics, and politics. 

Furthermore, the article does not address what happens when a mother tongue becomes infused with words from other languages. This is especially relevant in connection with subsistence activities, including farming, fishing, hunting and gathering, and pastoralism. Key words relating to the management of natural resources increasingly shift to introduced words. These introduced words never cover the same meanings as the vernacular words, and because of this the chances of misunderstanding are likely to increase, specifically in the case of subsistence practices and natural resource management more generally (Soeftestad et al, 2004; Soeftestad, 2004; cf. also Roe, 2020; cf. also Note 7). This follows from the facts of how languages are part and parcel of cultures (Rawlings 2019). A language is how a culture is articulated. Vice versa, a culture is imbedded in its language. When a language changes also its culture changes, and vice versa.

Ethnologue used to be financed by available Ethnologue funds. That is, use of the database was free. In 2015 this financing model had to change (Matacic, 2020). Ethnologue introduced a paywall, and most non-paying visitors were turned away after several pages. Since late 2019 the paywall allows all visitors to view all pages, but key information about each language is blotted out. Subscription now begins at USD 480 per person per year. Ethnologue has also introduced institutional subscriptions, but this appears to not have been very successful. The reaction in the user community was fast and vocal, with many users arguing that it had become so costly that it was not worthwhile to use it. While linguists at established organizations may be able to afford it, this is not necessarily so with researches in the global South. As a matter of fact, the majority of users are not academic researchers, but include, e.g. high school students, consultants, people trying to find interpreters for courts, hospitals, and immigration offices. Ethnologue has since the beginning been the only source for linguistic data, and researchers have now begun looking for alternatives.

International Organization for Standardization

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has created a set of standards that addresses representation of names for languages and language groups. The language codes are used for bibliographic purpose, as well as in computing and internet environments. They are also used elsewhere, including in Wikipedia and in URLs. The standard is named ISO 639, with the original standard being approved in 1967. The current standard dates from 2002, and consists of five parts. The most important one for the present purpose is ISO 639-3, with SIL International as the Registration Authority (Wikipedia, "ISO 639"). As of 30 January 2020 the ISO 639-3 standard contains 7868 language codes, in addition to 4 special codes and 520 codes for local use.

At this point it is appropriate to address two special issues, namely: (1) alphabets and scripts and (2) extinct languages. 

There Are Also Alphabets and Scripts To Consider

We tend to give attention to languages, to the spoken word. Alphabets and scripts receive little attention, including by Ethnologue. The focus is on the spoken word, while writing receives much less attention. According to Valentino (2020) this is understandable. Languages are innate to all humans. Scripts, on the other hand, have to be invented and constructed, and then actively learned. Writing can feel less important than speaking. This rationale contributed to the development of the discipline of linguistics, in that writing was understood to be a more or less accidental by-product of language, and linguistics in this way became the study of the spoken language. The fact that scripts and alphabets have to be invented, and then actively learned, go a long way towards explaining the fact that until the middle of the 19th century only 10% of all adults in the world knew how to write (UNESCO, 2018). More astonishing is the fact that there are only around 120-140 scripts in use today (Note 8). 

There is now increasing attention to the fact that also alphabets and scripts need to be supported, in order to prevent that they disappear, and, as a consequence, that languages disappear (Note 9).

A fascinating fact with an alphabet, including the shape of the individual signs, is that it can inform us about a culture in ways beyond what a spoken language can. Related to this is the fact that scripts are often as closely part of a culture as is the language.

This lacking emphasis on scripts, relative to languages, is key to understanding why and how scripts that have endured for hundreds of years are disappearing. As in the case of languages, this is at least partly a matter of national or domestic politics.

Valentino (2020) presents interesting examples of how a bottoms-up approach to constructing scripts is taking off. A key element in this approach is to return to the sources, and the goal is to bring half-forgotten scripts back to life. An important side effect is that this work contributes to empowering people.

What About Extinct Languages?

Once a language has become extinct, is it gone for good? Is it possible to bring a language back to life? To revive it? The answer, according to one linguist, Ghil'ad Zuckermann, is both "yes" and "no" (Rawlings, 2019). In short, it is possible, but it will not be the same language that disappeared. Zuckermann works in Australia, and is credited for bringing at least one Aboriginal language back. Says he: "resurrecting lost languages may bring many benefits to indigenous populations, including for their health and happiness". He presents three reasons for why language revival is good (Rawlings, 2019):

  1. Ethical. Righting the wrongs of colonial linguistic supremacy,
  2. Utilitarian. It is about more than just communication, including culture, autonomy, sovereignty, spirituality, and wellbeing,
  3. Aestheticism. Co-existence of so many distinct and unique languages is beautiful.

Zuckermann has grand plans. He wants to spread knowledge about language revival far and wide. He has been running online courses on language revival since 2014 in around 190 countries where language death occurs. Importantly, he prefers to work with people who are not academic. This would seem to represent a crucial difference from the approach advocated by Wolff, who addresses students at the university level. Any contextual differences between these two approaches aside, chances are that Zuckermann's approach is the one more likely to produce results.

Enters Glottolog

For those looking for alternatives to Ethnologue, the only option is Glottolog (Hammarström, et al, n.d.). This is a project of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, which for years have catalogued many of the same data as Ethnologue (the source for much of the data is actually Ethnologue itself). Glottolog uses a different format as well as different citation standards (Matacic, 2020). Glottolog performs no surveys of its own, and does not collect demographic data. This means it is low-maintenance compared with Ethnologue, and use of Glottolog is free. It would seem that many linguists as well as other users are now shifting from Ethnologue to Glottolog.


We need more focus on language endangerment and language death, including better didactic presentations of the situation. This would include datasets and maps that show: 

  1. The world's endangered languages,
  2. The languages that likely will die, and
  3. The languages that have become extinct in the recent past.

Such datasets and maps should be updated regularly. Actually, an effort to present relevant data visually in this way is available (Moseley, 2010; UNESCO, n.d.). UNESCO's "Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger" is such a tool. However, it appears to not have been updated since several years, and the dataset for this reason does not represent the present situation. Also, the website is not maintained, with a number of links that do not work. The Atlas is prepared under UNESCO's Language Vitality and Endangerment Framework. It establishes six levels of endangerment based on nine factors, of which the most salient is intergenerational language transmission (Table 1).

Table 1 - UNESCO's Levels of Language Endangerment
  Levels of EndangermentIntergenerational Language Transmission


SafeLanguage is spoken by all generations. Inter-generational transmission is uninterrupted. (Note: not included in the Atlas.)
 2VulnerableMost children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains.
 3Definitely endangeredChildren no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.
 4Severely endangeredLanguage is spoken by grandparents and other generations. While the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.
 5Critically   endangered The youngest speakers are grandparents and older. They speak the language partially.
 6ExtinctThere are no speakers left. (Note: included in the Atlas if presumed extinct since the 1950s.)


Based on the definitions of levels of endangerment in Table 1, the number of endangered languages at each level are identified (Table 2).

Table 2 - Endangered Languages per Level
 Levels of EndangermentNo. of Languages
 2  Vulnerable             592
 3 Definitely endangered             640
 4 Severely endangered             537
 5 Critically endangered             577
 6 Extinct             228
                             Total           2574

The best solution to the issue of disseminating information about language endangerment widely would seem to be that UNESCO continues this work, starting with updating the data set, redrawing the map data, and preparing a final version of the global map (presently a label overlaying the map states "for development purposes only"). Further, the browsing functionalities should be updated.

Cameroon: a Case

There are over 260 national languages in Cameroon, of which only 40 are taught in schools (Kindzeka, 2020). UNESCO classifies Cameroon as a having a distinctive cultural identity on the world's linguistic map. Most Cameroonian are bilingual. In addition to the mother tongue they use two colonial languages, namely English (20 percent) and French (80 percent). Of the national languages, 10 percent are neglected, 7 percent are threatened, and 4 percent have disappeared since 1950. The colonial languages are in many cases not useful as means of communication. SIL International is providing advise on how to teach national languages. The Ministry of Basic Education is currently implementing a pilot program in the country's 10 regions that aims to prevent further national languages from disappearing. For now the program focuses on teaching 5 of the most used national languages in 43 schools throughout the country. In addition, all teachers have received training on how to teach the national languages spoken by pupils in their respective schools.

By 2030 the Ministry will decide which of the languages will be used as an official language, in addition to English and French. A relevant question here is how this may affect the relationships between the selected language and the other national languages, as well as between those speaking these languages. The fundamental question would seem to be if this strategy, on the long term, will contribute save more than the one selected language.


We desperately need more focus on the world's endangered languages. This includes global statistics on their present situation, and specifically their future situation. A specific focus on languages with few speakers is necessary. In anthropology, my own discipline, there has since long been a focus on studying and learning about small and marginal cultures where few persons are left that live the way they used to (Note 10). The focus has been on understanding the way of life of these cultures including, inter alia, kinship system, economics, politics, religion, social organization, subsistence practices, and values. The underlying rationale is that each culture represents a unique way of understanding, defining, and using the relevant environment; a unique way of adapting environment and culture; and a unique way of defining the human existence. We should strive to understand and hopefully learn from these deep insights into the relations between cultures and their environment. Within anthropology this is oftentimes referred to as "urgent anthropology", and it covers both culture and language.

There is an interesting way in which anthropology may be useful, based on its long-standing focus on cross-cultural comparison, namely the Human Relations Area Files, Inc. (HRAF) (Note 11). Its mission is to promote understanding of cultural diversity and commonality, both in the past and the present. A unique aspect of the HRAF databases is that they focus on ethnic groups of cultures from hunting and gathering societies to complex states, in contrast to other databasd that focus only on countries. Furthermore, the the HRAF databased contain contain data, as opposed to only pointing to such data (WIkipedia, "Human Relations Area Files"). The database "eHRAF World Cultures" is relevant here. Given that both the Ethnologue and HRAF use individual cultures as the basic unit of entering and analysing data (in the case of Ethnologue more specifically the language belonging to a culture), a relevangt question is if these data sets in any way can support each other? I am here thinking specifically of transcription, that is, the systematic representation of languages in written form. As an example, could the material culture record and inventory of a culture could be utilized in arriving at correct/good transcription of specific utterances in a language?

In the same vein, linguists should also step up to the plate, following the lead of the two linguists discussed above. Ideally, teams of people from both disciplines should collaborate, and address the combined language and culture. This makes a lot of sense, because of the close connection between a culture and its language. The goals of linguistic work on endangered languages would be to record languages, together with their scripts and alphabets if available. The overarching rationale and goal of all of this work is to contribute to saving cultures AND languages from extinction.

Furthermore, education campaigns that address why it is important to safeguard endangered languages needs to be prepared. We tend to take languages for granted, being socialized into one from birth. We need to understand the close relations between language and culture in order to appreciate the value that a language has for the indigenous people or ethnic minority in which is came about, has evolved, and is used.

A number of organizations and NGOs follow and/or work on these and related issues, in different ways. This includes, in particular, indigenous organizations and NGOs, as well as international civil society organizations, that work to support indigenous affairs. Among the latter is the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) (Note 12).

A UN agency, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), plans to focus on land tenure, specifically for indigenous peoples, as an approach to reach out to these peoples with its message and focus on land degradation and how to prevent it. This is addressed in a separate Devblog article (Note 13).

Final Questions and a Plea

This goes out to you, dear reader. Now that you have read this piece, what is your reaction? Is this just another of the many issues that confronts you today, and not one that you share and/or give priority to? You know, I believe this is not where you are at (otherwise you would not have bothered to read this far). So, assuming you agree that this needs to be addressed, and urgently, what should be done? How? By whom? Your first reaction is likely that you cannot do anything alone, and that this has to be addressed collectively, that is, by governments and the international community. I know, because it is also my gut reaction. But we can do something, we can at least begin. Many among you will live in countries where there are citizens that speak, or recently spoke, an endangered language. Many of these people – cultural/ethnic minorities or indigenous people – are members of NGOs or else work with organizations that represent them. They are likely concerned and may work on this, for example, preparing and implementing relevant curricula. Whatever your training and expertise is, you can provide help. Any advice and help you can give will be appreciated!


(1) This article is a revised and expanded version of a comment posted on LinkedIn on 17 January 2020. Later on short LinkedIn Pulse article was published (in turn enlaged into the present Devblog article, at:
(2) SIL International was originally named Summer Institute of Linguistics. It is an American Christian organization that aims to study and document languages, promote literacy, translate the Bible, and aid in language development. More information at:
(3) Given the below statistics, the reference in the title of the present article to "living languages" needs to be qualified. With around half of all remaining languages being vulnerable to one degree or another (see Tables 1 and 2), the reality is that these languages face a very uncertain future, with many barely hanging on.
(4) By extension, this applies also to the World Economic Forum that refers to these data (Wolff, 2019).

(5) The term "linguicide" is used for languages that disappear due to natural or political reasons.
(6) The article was published in collaboration with The Conversation, at:

(7) Several CBNRM Net Newsletters carry articles that discuss terminology, at . Also, the CBNRM Net website includes a section on natural resource management terms, at URL:
(8) See these websites on endangered alphabets: "Endangered alphabets", at: and "Atlas of endangered alphabets", at:  (accessed 4 February 2020)
(9) "Endangared alphabets", at  (accessed 4 February 2020.)
(10) The term "anthropology" is here used in its European meaning, understood as "social anthropology". This term distinguished it from anthropology in North America, labelled as "cultural anthropology". A person trained in linguistics in North America will as a rule have a degree in anthropology.
(11) A number of universities in the United States founded HRAF, and agreed to base its operations at Yale University,
(12) International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), at:
(13) Relevant Devblog articles: "Languages, land tenure, and land degradation", at:
(14) Photo credit: Ethnologue (2019).

(15) Permanent link:
(16) This article was published 18 January 2020. It was updated 23 February 2020.

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