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I am curious about what languages are projected to "die off" in the near future, say within 10, 50, or 100 years from now.

My questions in particular:

  1. What and where are these languages exactly?
  2. What are the major reasons for this?
  3. (a little more philosophical) Should linguists do anything about it?
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    Isn't every living language dying in the process of transformation? – Benjamin Sep 22 '12 at 13:50
  • Given that there are several thousand languages in the world, globalization by itself would endanger countless languages through thresholding/bottlenecking. – amr Sep 25 '12 at 19:40
  • related (especially for your 3rd point): linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/1549/… – Louis Rhys May 16 '13 at 5:15
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I'll start from the second point. The usual criteria to "locate" an endangered language are:

  1. The number of native speakers that are still alive (at the moment of the analysis);
  2. the average age of these native speakers (or fluent speakers);
  3. the percentage of the new generations that acquire fluency in that given language.

If a language stops having native speakers, but it's still used in some contexts, it becomes a dead language, such as Latin.

The number of native speakers can be a hint, but it doesn't necessarily mean that a certain language is disappearing. For example, a language can have millions of speakers, but if nobody learns it as a child, or if the speakers will "move" to the national language abandoning the local varieties — it seems this is happening in Indonesia — then those local languages will be in danger. If a language has some hundreds of speakers, but it's the primary or only language of a certain population, it won't be in danger.

The Ainu language is considered to be in a dangerous situation, having only 300 native speakers where only 15 use the language on a daily basis. Not to mention that the replacement by the new generations is not sufficient.

Also the Leonese language appears in the list, and many others, that you can find in this article from the Guardian, that features a list provided by the UNESCO. The UNESCO also provides an Atlas of the World's Languages in danger.

Some linguists think we should save these languages, because they belong to human history and in turn can help to decipher it and understand it. Other linguists think we should push towards a world situation with less languages in order to favor a good communication between people and possibly arrive to a single global language.

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    I can't imagine any linguist that is totally ok with languages dying off. To lose that variety and spice and culture! I had a professor who cried when he talked about moribund languages. If there were only one languages, linguists wouldn't really be necessary, now would we? – mollyocr Sep 28 '11 at 13:44
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    I actually am on your side. I don't like when languages go to die or are in trouble. Luckily, many linguists are there trying to save the languages, preserving them or making records of them, at least. :) – Alenanno Sep 28 '11 at 13:57
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    @Alenanno I haven't met or heard of professional linguists that thing we should push towards a situation with less languages. That would be like biologists pushing for fewer species (?to make ecology simpler?), so I'm curious to know where you've heard this. Linguists that I've spoken to about this think that everyone should be multilingual to improve communication. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 6 '11 at 3:55
  • @GastonÜmlaut Sorry for the late feedback! :D Anyway, I honestly don't remember at the moment, but I think that if I wrote it, it means I knew about something like that. If I manage to remember, I'll include it and let you know! :) – Alenanno Mar 5 '12 at 11:54
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    John McWhorter is one, and his views are sadly influential: nysun.com/opinion/dying-languages/45847 – ROBOKiTTY Sep 16 '12 at 2:16
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  • One hears all the time about language X's last speaker dying (Cornish? Dalmatian?). So I wouldn't be surprised if there's a wikipedia list...(googling for it)... of endangered languages. Their source is the more easily navigable ethnologue list of nearly extinct languages.

  • The major proximal reason is lack of children picking it up as first language (in a family). This is usually the second generation after public schools are instituted, teaching the kids the approved language (but not the home language). Then when they get older, the new parents can speak to the grandparents in one language to their kids in the official language, but the grandchildren and grandparents can't speak together. The causes of the education process can be cultural hegemony (laws against speaking the non-standard language) or just plain increase in living standards (that allow more widespread standard education.

  • should linguists do anything about it? It's more of an anthropological issue...many European countries have revivals of marginal languages going on (Provencal, Bretagne, Manx?). I think governments around the world should be more tolerant of local customs (like languages), but I also think all stop lights should turn to green just before I get to them.

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Regarding question 3, most linguists I know would like to see all languages preserved, but also understand that people need to have command of the language of power in order to survive and succeed in wider society. There's no contradiction in this, it just means that people should be supported in being competent in more than one language. When linguists study an endangered language (that is, one where intergenerational transmission has been interrupted) it's held to be an important part of our fieldwork ethic that we should offer the community help in preserving their language, if that's what they want. So yes, where appropriate, they should do something about it.

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    @DuckMaestro: This doesn't answer DuckMaestro's question though. It would work better as a comment than as an answer and may receive downvotes if left here. – hippietrail Oct 2 '11 at 12:58

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