There are an estimated 7,117 languages spoken in the world today. Approximately 40% of these languages are considered endangered and dying fast. In fact, every 14 days, an entire language disappears. By the end of this century, more than half of all languages will become extinct. As each language dies off, so too do important histories and cultural identities.
In this post, we discuss four endangered languages that you have likely never heard of.
Moghol – Finding its origins in remnants of Genghis Khan’s army
Moghol (or Mogol) is a severely endangered Mongolic language. Experts estimate that there are just 200 or so native Moghol speakers left in the world. These individuals belong to an elderly segment of a population of several thousand ethnic Moghols living near Herat in Afghanistan.
The Moghol people descend from what remained of Genghis Khan’s Mongol army that was stationed in Afghanistan in the 13th century. This followed the great Mongol Invasions that led to the Mongol Empire becoming the largest contiguous empire in history following Khan’s death.
Moghol is one of several surviving outlying dialects of the Mongolian language, joining Daur in the east and Monguor (Tu), Bao’an (Bonan), and Santa (Dongxiang) in the south. Unlike these other Mongolian dialects, Moghol grammar shows evidence of a significant Persian influence.
Cornish – To the brink of extinction and back again
The Cornish language likely originated at around the end of the 7th century AD. Written examples of the language, however, exist from the end of the 9th century. Like Welsh and Breton, Cornish descended from the Common Brittonic language. Common Brittonic was spoken throughout much of Great Britain prior to the adoption of the English language.
There are three dialects of Cornish named after their respective temporal periods. Old Cornish existed between 800 and 1250 AD in the area that is modern-day Cornwall. Middle Cornish was used between 1250 and 1550 AD, peaking at approximately 39,000 speakers during the 13th century. Late or Modern Cornish was used from 1550 AD until sometime in the 19th century when the language neared extinction.
Revival efforts in the early 20th century led to a resurgence of the language. The Cornish Language Board was established in 1967 to promote the use of the language. There are currently some 3,000 speakers of Cornish, two-thirds of which speak it fluently.
Kalmyk Oirat – The inspiration for the language of the Ewoks
Most Star Wars fans would be surprised to learn that Kalmyk Oirat’s unique phonology served as the inspiration for the language of the beloved Ewoks. The language is spoken by the Kalmyk people of Kalmykia, a federal subject of Russia. According to a 2010 Russian census, the Kalmyk population consists of 183,000 people, of which 80,500 speak the Kalmyk language. Some pockets of native speakers also reside in France and the United States.
Kalmyk is similar to the Oirat dialects in Mongolia and China. What distinguishes Kalmyk, however, is its Russian influence. Kalmyk adopts entire words from the Russian language, as well as Turkic dialects. The significant decline of the Kalmyk language began following World War II. The Kalmyk people had collaborated with the Nazis and were punished by being deported en masse to remote settlements.
Many migrators died from disease and malnutrition during the exodus. Reduced numbers combined with cultural decline largely due to their affiliation with the Nazis prevented the transmission of the Kalmyk language to future generations. The Soviet government re-established Kalmykia in 1957, officially ending the period of exile, but forcing the use of the Russian language on the Kalmyk people.
There have been some efforts to revive the Kalmyk language. For instance, in the United States, the Kalmyk community in New Jersey announced plans to work with the Enduring Voices Project to promote the language, but it still remains endangered.
Basque – A dialect unrelated to any known living language
Basque is the language spoken by the Basque people. The Basques primarily inhabit a region located on the coast of the Bay of Biscay between parts of north-central Spain and southwestern France. Basque is spoken by approximately 30% of all Basques, with 93% of native speakers residing in Spanish Basque Country.
Basque is the only surviving pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe. There are five dialects of Basque, which are further divided into 11 sub-dialects and 24 minor varieties. The origins of the language are not known, but experts believe it predates the arrival of Indo-European languages in the region. Experts have made repeated efforts to connect Basque to other languages but have not been successful.
Basque has made a resurgence in Spain and interestingly enough has played a part in the constitutional crisis there in recent years. The language, however, remains vulnerable. In recent years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) labelled it as endangered.
Reviving the world’s dying languages
There is a growing effort in the international community to save and revive endangered languages. Organizations like UNESCO, 7,000 Languages, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the Endangered Languages Project play vital roles in the effort. Governmental bodies also often participate in preserving local languages.
Organizational efforts to rescue endangered languages generally consist of three steps. First, the language is documented through writing it and recording native speakers. Documentation is stored in a secure archive where it can be accessed by later generations.
Second, revitalization involves community-level awareness and education to increase the number of active speakers. Many organizations have utilized online learning platforms as a cost-effective and efficient means of teaching languages on a large scale. Finally, maintenance of these assets ensures ongoing education and protection of the language from further decline.
And lastly, RWS Moravia believes that LSPs can also help. For example, we have participated in creating card games featuring endangered languages in an effort to educate young people and preserve knowledge.
Languages play a vital role in who we are as a people. They remind us of our origins and make up an important part of our cultural identities. Yet, globalization is leading to cultural assimilation and the slow death of many of the world’s languages. By working together, we can slow the process and protect our histories.