Tale av Vigdis Finnbogadottir, 9. september

Voices of the World

We should care for the reduction of language diversity and dying languages for the very same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet. We are talking about the intellectual and cultural diversity of the planet now, of course, not its biological diversity. But the issues are the same. Enshrined in a language is the whole of a community’s history, and a large part of its cultural identity. The world is a mosaic of visions. To  lose even one piece of this mosaic is a loss for all of us.

We can learn so much from the visions of others. Sometimes the learning is eminently practical, such as when medical treatments from the folk medicine practices of an indigenous people spread to other parts of the world to the benefit of all. Sometimes it is intellectual- an increase in our awareness of the history of our world, as when the links between languages tell us something about the movements of early civilisations -or as when oral literature or myths or just the meeting with another foreign mindset, philosophy or poetry open up new inner universes. And of course, very often we learn something new about language itself – the behaviour that makes us truly human.

That’s why it is so important to document these languages as quickly as possible. With every language that dies, another precious source of data about the nature of the human language faculty is lost – and don’t forget, there are only about 6,000 sources in all.

There are nine different words in Maya for the colour blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary, but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can only be seen by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies, six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the world.  (Earl Shorris, Professor of Anthropology)

A widespread effort is being made to document «indigenous knowledge» (IK) and see its use in sustainable development in the form of a world-wide and rapidly expanding network of IK-resource-centres. The initiative is based on the growing international reconnection of the link between cultural and biological diversity, and the IK-system’s role as cultural capital. These IK-resource-centres secure national and international contacts between individuals and institutions working with IK.

The cultural, biological and linguistic tendencies of development all point in the same direction: A notorious growth in mono-cultures that all too often disregards local conditions. In the long run this may lead the globe to a state of biological, cultural and linguistic desertification, for with the local languages and cultures, disappears also the knowledge about local biological conditions that is necessary for survival. When a language is moribund, it is often a sign of a milieu crisis, or -to put it the other way about -where there are indigenous peoples with a homeland, there are still biologically rich environments.

The dangers threatening small communities are bigger than ever: a growing number of languages are becoming extinct, in line with the general tendency towards assimilation into bigger national states. To maintain linguistic diversity is not just an idealistic wish, but rather a necessity -if we want to keep the variety on which humanity depends. Language, culture and nature are interconnected, and if one is obstructed it will have consequences for the others.
Thousands of years of accumulated knowledge disappears every fortnight, because the last speaker of a language dies. This is not only a problem from a humanitarian point of view. This is knowledge that is being lost to the world. Any effort to maintain languages is an effort to prevent the intellectual and practical knowledge they have inherited from disappearing from the consciousness of the world.


Languages have died off throughout history, but never have we faced the massive extinction that is threatening the world right now. As language professionals, we are faced with a stark reality: Much of what we study will not be available to future generations. The cultural heritage of many peoples is crumbling while we look on. Are we willing to shoulder the blame for having stood by and done nothing?’ (Opening statement, Endangered Language Fund, USA 1995)

Statistics suggest that over half of the world’s languages are moribund: i.e. not being passed on effectively to the next generation. We are living at a point in human history where, within perhaps two generations, most languages in the world will die out.

Language is a fundamental part of life, common to all humans, and an identity and culture- defining factor unique to the species of humankind. Without language you cannot define yourself as a human being, without language you cannot express your cultural identity. All languages are rich with characteristic creative grammatical and phonetic ways of organising and categorising human experience, and specific ways of expressing their conceptions of the world. Language might very well have been the crucial element that made it possible for Homo Sapiens to become the most successful species in the world, because language made possible communication about new findings and insights.

There is nothing unusual about a single language dying. Communities have come and gone throughout history , and with them their language. Hittite, for example, died out when its civilisation disappeared in Old Testament times. But what is happening today is extraordinary, judged by the standards of the past. It is language extinction on a massive scale.

Estimates as to the total number of languages spoken in the world today range between 4,000 and10,000, depending on how the exact border between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ is defined; but most recent linguistic publications agree on a total of just under 7,000, which breaks down as follows:

Asia                33 %               2,197 languages

Africa             30 %               2,058 languages

Pacific             19 %               1 ,311 languages

America          15 %               1 ,013 languages

Europe            3 %                     230 lanauages
Total             100%                 6,809 languages

The biggest tropical rain-forest region on earth, which holds the majority of the species of the world, is also the home of the highest range of linguistic diversity. Most of the world’s languages are spoken in two zones – one running from the West African coast via the Congo to East Africa, and the other from southern India and the south-eastern Asian peninsula via the Indonesian islands to New Guinea and the Pacific.

The 17 largest countries in these regions account for 60% of the languages of the world, but only for 27% of the world’s population, and only 9% of the world’s area.

Nigeria                       427 languages

Cameroon                  270 1anguages

Zaire                          210 languages

The Ivory Coast           73 languages

Togo                           43 languages

Ghana                         72 1anguages

Benin                           51 languages

Tanzania                    131 1anguages

India                           380 languages (incl. 3 on first languages top 15)

Vietnam                         86 languages

Laos                              92 1anguages

The Philippines             160 languages

Malaysia                      137 languages

Indonesia                     670 languages (incl. 1 on first languages top 15)

Papua New Guinea        860 languages

Vanuatu                       105 languages

The Solomon Islands      66 languages

Australia represents another 250 languages, Mexico 240 and Brazil 210 languages, while Europe represents only a modest 3% of all languages, and China with it’s 21.5% of the world’s population and 8.6% of the world’s area, holds only a mere 2.6% of the world’s languages (96 languages). So 70% of the world’s languages are gathered in only 20 nations, which include some of the poorest in the world.

Mandarin is on the top-1 O-list of ‘first languages’, representing 726 million speakers, followed by English with it’s 427 million speakers, and Spanish with 266 millions, Hindi has another 182 million speakers, Arabian 181 millions, Portuguese 165 millions, Bengali 162 millions, Russian 158 millions, Japanese 124 millions and German 121 millions.)
(The list does not include second-language speakers, totals which in many cases are considerably higher.)  In effect, the statistics mean that

96% of the languages of the world are spoken by 4% of the world’s population
4% of the languages of the world are spoken by 96% of the world’s population

52% of the world’s languages are spoken by less than 10,000 people
28% by less than 1,000
10% by less than 100

This implies that well over half of the world’s languages, i.e. some 3,500 languages, have 10,000 speakers or less; and that a quarter of all languages have only 1,000 speakers or less. At present, linguists suggest that there are around 50 languages which have only one speaker left.  Estimates about the number of languages in the world must be treated with caution. There is unlikely to be any single, universally agreed total. As a result, translating observations about percentages of endangered languages into absolute figures, or vice versa is always problematic. Nonetheless, one fact is clear and solid: the number of living and spoken languages is diminishing at an alarming rate.

Estimates have it that only around 600 of the world’s languages are not threatened by extinction. Statistically, one language dies every fortnight -which means that some 50% of the languages of the world will be gone by the end of the twenty-first century, and with them the cultures, that they embed. Somewhere between 20% and 30% of the languages of the world are not being passed on to new generations, and because this natural transmission is not taking place, the languages are moribund. So we are reaching a critical point in human history, where, if we do not take action, numerous languages of the world will have vanished within 2 generations, taking their cultures with them.

Why are so many languages dying?  The reasons range from natural disasters, through different forms of cultural assimilation, to genocide.  Small communities in isolated areas can easily be dicimated or wiped out by earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and other cataclysms.  A habitat may become unsurviveable through unfavourable climatic and economic conditions – famine and drouht especially.  Communities can die through imported disease.  Cultural assimilation is an even bigger factor.  Much of the present crisis in language loss stems from the major cultural movements which began 500 years ago, as colonialism spread a small number of dominant languages – English, Spanish, Portugese and French – around the world.  The extinction of languages and cultures is symptomatic of the social process following globalisation.  Great numbers of the worlds languages are threatened by the spreading of a small handful of major languages.

This radical change is not a question of ‘survival of the fittest’, or the result of a sound concurrence between equals, but, on the contrary, largely the result of unequal social conditions both between the industrialised countries and developing countries, and, more especially, between developed and undeveloped regions within the same country.


The figure of 100,000 when talking about endangered languages, sometimes takes people by surprise. Surely a language with 100,000 speakers is safe? The evidence is to the contrary. Such a language is not going to die next week or next year; but there is no guarantee that it will be surviving in a couple of generations. It all depends on the pressures being exerted upon it -in particular, whether it is at risk from the dominance of another language. It also depends on the attitudes of the people who speak it -do they care if it lives or dies?

Problems arise when the mother tongue is not being passed on effectively to the next generation. This may either be because the parents find it futile to speak their mother tongue, or perhaps because the children abandon it when they find that their mother tongue is seen as a social and/or economic stigma.

Can anything be done? Obviously it’s too late to do anything to help many languages, where the speakers are too few or too old, and where the community is too busy just trying to survive to care a hoot about their language. But many languages are not in such a desperate position. Often, where languages are seriously endangered, there are things that can be done to give new life to them. The term used to describe this process is ‘revitalisation’. A community, once it realises that its language is in danger, can get its act together, and introduce measures which can genuinely revitalise. You’ve seen it happen in Australia, with several aboriginal languages, and it’s happening in other countries, too. Conditions have to be right, of course, for there to be a likelihood of success. The community itself must want to save its language -that’s the absolute first step. The culture of which it’s a part must also need to have a respect for minority languages.

An endangered language will progress if it’s speakers:

.have access to media

.increase their wealth

.increase their legitimate power in the dominant community .have a strong presence in the educational system

.can write their language down

.can make use of electronic communication technology

Breton, in France, is a classic case. At the beginning of the 20th century it was spoken by as many as a million people, but by the end of the century it was down to perhaps a quarter of that total. Breton could be safe if enough effort is made – the kind of effort that has already helped Welsh to recover its growth. It not, the downward trend will just continue, and Breton could be gone in 50 years. This scenario has already happened, in recent times, to two other Celtic languages in Europe- Cornish, formerly spoken in Cornwall, and Manx, in the Isle of Man.

Language diversity, like a gene pool, is essential for our species to thrive. If we are to prosper, we need the cross-fertilisation of thought, that multilinguism gives us. Linguists have for a long time been calling attention to the fact that it is a benefit to master more than one language, as long as there is a balance between the mother tongue and the second language.

Today, English is the main contender for the position of world lingua franca. There are few competitors. Several other languages have an important local role as a lingua franca, such as Russian in Eastern Europe or Spanish in South and Central America, but no comparable international level of use. Mandarin has more speakers than any other language in the world, but is too unfamiliar in western societies to be used there. German and French are still widely used, but far less than they were a century ago.

The world has diminished. We exchange information globally more than ever- through news,
trade agreements and political associations. Art, culture and religion are constant carriers of discussion, and the electronic media will bring us together even more closely in times to come. We cannot deny this fact -using it wisely is a task we have to face.

The ideal of globalisation is that each culture should be able to guard its own cultural and linguistic heritage, as well as all its embedded knowledge, expressional individualism and traditional poetry , keeping its own individual taxonomy alive -while at the same time everyone is empowered to communicate with the rest of the world in at least one or two major lingua franca, for the benefit of all. The ideal is certainly not that the price to be paid for the currency of the lingua franca should be the demise of linguistic -and cultural- diversity.


VOW proposes to take effective action towards maintaining cultural and linguistic diversity. In order to help revitalise moribund languages and create an archive of those which are beyond hope of resuscitation, it will begin by initiating positive global dialogue on linguistic and cultural diversity in the world today, and laying the foundations for a lasting archive resource for study. Central to the VOW concept are the audio-visual media and broadcasUdigital networks which will ensure that the profile of this dialogue is high, and has a significant impact at a cultural level, all over the globe.

The VOW organisation and network offers to co-ordinate people, ethnic groups and cultures, UN- agencies, different kinds of NGOs, research-centres, universities and educational establishments

A crucial aspect of the project is the process that VOW will generate in each participant culture, enabling each language-group to:

* appreciate its mother tongue as unique and ‘identity creating’
* increase attention to the development of the individual languages
* raise awareness of the transmission of the language to coming generations encourage language care (for instance establishing written vocabularies, education, administration, information, cultural practices, artistic productions)
* identify foreign language influence and exchange
* formulate the importance of multi-linguistic environments
* establish appropriate legal and cultural rights to a mother tongue
* generate scientific documentation where it is neede

A crucial element of VOW will be an Archive of Language & Languages, a collection of existing knowledge and documentation accessible through one portal, with the aim of facilitating contact between people from all over the world. Over the years, many individual initiatives have been
made towards true international co-operation on this front, but none have reached full fruition. In order to have our network in place and the content ready for dissemination by October 2005, VOW hopes that the challenge of this new initiative will be taken up with full commitment to the necessary collaborative work.

9th September 2004

Vigdis Finnbógadottir