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in peril

i've posted before about my language learning adventures, and my ongoing quest to learn every single syllable in every single language before i die. but every day, i am faced with a horrible thought: not only is my goal facile and ridiculous, but it's also quite likely that a lot of the languages in the world today will die before i do. i already did a post with nifty charts showing the staggering linguistic diversity of the world compared to the paltry number that the vast majority of us actually speak. in that post, i touched upon how standardisation has eliminated most of the variants of "big" languages like french, and how some have been brought back from the dead. this time around, i thought i'd look at some of those languages that are clinging to life by their proverbial fingernails, or at least that are facing some stormy seas ahead.

before i get to my list, i should direct you to a somewhat larger list. that's a list of 180 countries that currently have languages that fall in the spectrum from vulnerable to functionally extinct. there are just under two hundred independent countries in the world [the exact number depends on whom you ask], which means that almost all of them have at least one language that's not likely to make it through the coming linguistic pruning.

[note :: i've tried to keep my little list clearly in the camp of "languages" and not "dialects", although this is a grey area. some of the languages listed below already have dialects that have gone extinct.]

language :: ainu
home base :: hokkaido, japan
status :: nearly extinct
this sucks because :: well, ainu is a language isolate, and as a rule, it's not good to lose things when there's only one of them left. and these people have been in the area for about twenty thousand years. to put that in perspective, the entire indo-european language family is about six thousand years old. being the generation that kills off something that's survived that long seems like a really lousy way to get in the history books.
outlook :: very bad. despite some efforts to revive it, chances are that ainu will become confined to history books in the very near future. that said, efforts at reviving a language don't stop at death, as anyone who speaks a celtic language can tell you. the question is, will there be enough interest in ainu to keep pushing the revival? celtic languages were resurrected or brought back from the brink because of the ungodly large community of people with celtic roots around the world. ainu has no such community. here's hoping.
learn it!

language :: sentinel [sentilenese]
home base :: north sentinel island, part of the andaman and nicobar islands, india
status :: vulnerable. or critically endangered. it's a good question, really.
this sucks because :: we know absolutely nothing about it. linguists think it's related to the ongan branch of the andamanese language group. but that's no more than a guess, because people just do not go to north sentinel island. while india owns the territory, they abandoned attempts to contact the 300 or so people there two decades ago, because the sentinelese have a tendency to welcome people who approach their island by throwing javelins at them. so now india just leaves them alone and arrests anyone who gets within three miles of the island, which sounds harsh until you consider what the natives would do to them.
outlook :: these people have been defending themselves and their language for 60,000 years. nearly a quarter of a million people were killed in the 2004 indian ocean tsunami, an event which endangered some languages in and of itself. the sentinelese and their mysterious language weathered the storm just fine, as far as anyone can tell. we should just let them keep doing that, even if it means we never get to hear their voices for ourselves.
learn it! lol. right. you'd have to find it first. that's a link to a group that's preserving the andamanese languages as a whole, even the largest of which is endangered.

language :: abenaki
home base :: quebec, nova scotia and new brunswick in canada, vermont and maine in the united states
status :: depending on the dialect, threatened [mi'kmaq], endangered [maliseet- passamaquoddy], critically endangered [western abenaki] or extinct [penobscot]
this sucks because :: the families of the abenaki branch of the algonkian language family were the languages spoken by the first natives to encounter european settlers in north america.
outlook :: again, it depends on the dialect. with 8,000 speakers, mi'kmaq has the greatest shot at survival. but, western abenaki, with as few as five [elderly] fluent speakers left, may well see its final thanksgiving this week.
learn it! [mi'kmaq] [maliseet- passamaquoddy] [western abenaki]

language :: romani
home base :: europe, especially eastern europe
status :: at risk [as a group]
this sucks because :: it's the only language from the "indo" part of the indo-european family to have had a foothold in europe for hundreds of years. it's survived as a language despite constant persecution of romani people. it has a lot to teach us about how languages adapt.
outlook :: for the language as a whole, pretty decent. there are more than five million speakers and centuries of isolation have made the romani pretty protective of their language and culture. except... it's difficult to say with any certainty if there even is a romani language. there are four major dialects of romani, each of which have between three and fourteen sub-dialects. three of those sub-dialects have between three and five sub-sub-dialects. there are also more than a dozen "para-romani" languages, which are ones that combine features of romany with another language, but are distinct from either.  combine that diversity with the fact that romani is primarily used for speaking not writing, and you have some difficult questions. how many of those dialects can die before the structure of the whole is compromised?
learn it!

language :: belarusian
home base :: belarus [also has official language status in poland]
status :: vulnerable
this sucks because :: it should be completely impossible that a language can be threatened in the country that it's named for, when more than 85% of that country's ten million citizens claim it as their mother tongue. how does that happen? well, it turns out that the 85% figure is misleading. because, while it might be their mother tongue, it's not the language most belarusians are using to communicate. only about 10% say they use it in their daily lives, while the overwhelming majority speak russian. it's not even clear if a majority of belarusians are fully literate in the language, either, since most speak and read it, but far fewer can write it. there is no belarusian-language university and in 2010, only about a thousand university students received any instruction in belarusian at all.
outlook :: surprisingly dicey. there are rumours of a belarusian renaissance taking hold in minsk, but that might be an uphill battle. for starters, russian is extremely easy for belarusians to pick up. slavic languages aren't tremendously distant from one another, and the eastern slavic group- russian, ukrainian and belarusian- are close enough that a speaker of one can generally read and understand something in either of the other two. but one of those three is the native language of a world power with 150 million native speakers. and, unlike ukraine, belarus hasn't had a contentious relationship with their giant neighbour. while ukraine, the caucasus and the baltic states were fighting in the streets to break free of the soviet grip in the early nineties, belarus voted overwhelmingly to remain. belarusian is very far from extinction, but it is on a peculiarly self-destructive path for such a vital language.
learn it!

so there's a brief look at a few cases of languages that are fighting for their lives. there are thousands more. i've included learning links, and i highly encourage you to consider a small or threatened language if you're looking for a challenge. [here are some reasons.] no, these aren't languages that are likely to come in useful at work or make you a hero in day to day life, but those practical rewards are nothing compared to the look on some jerk's face when you curse them out in maliseet.         

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