Endangered Language Groups

by Gloria Kindell, Ph.D.

What's the fuss?

During the past several years linguists have become more and more concerned about ethnolinguistic groups which are either shifting from their original language to another which offers more power or opportunities, or whose population is becoming so reduced that there is little chance of ongoing use of their language. In nearly every part of the world languages are becoming extinct. Just as certain organizations and individuals in the world have the resources and ability to put considerable efforts into the preservation of threatened biological species, the time has come to express concern for language extinction and the loss of the cultures and the people they represent.

In the last few years a number of linguistic conferences have focused on the problem of endangered languages. These include the LSA Endangered Languages symposium, 1991; the 15th International Congress of Linguists, Quebec, August 1992; the 2nd International Conference on the Maintenance and Loss of Minority Languages, Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands, September 1992; the 17th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, November 1992; Thirteenth World Congress on Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Mexico City, August 1993; the 48th International Congress of Americanists, Stockholm, July 1994; the January 1995 LSA Meeting; and two more recent conferences on Linguistic Rights, in Barcelona and Hong Kong.

What is an endangered language?

There are many ways of defining endangered languages, the most simplistic being languages below some critical number of speakers. Smaller languages are in more danger, but the complex social, economic, political, or religious factors are decisive for the transmission of an original language from parents to children.

Dorian (1980) lists three symptoms of language death: fewer speakers, fewer domains of use, and structural simplification.

Krauss (1992), in his comparison of languages to endangered biological species, defines three categories of languages:

  1. moribund: 'languages no longer being learned as mother-tongue by children' (4);
  2. endangered:'languages which, though now still being learned by children, will--if the present conditions continue--cease to be learned by children during the coming century' (6); and
  3. safe: languages with 'official state support and very large numbers of speakers' (7).

Fishman (1991) uses an eight-stage intergenerational disruption scale, where the most threatened languages are those used only (1) by socially isolated old folks, (2) by a socially integrated population beyond child-bearing age, (3) only orally, with no literacy.

So, what should we do?

SIL has traditionally been involved with what are now called endangered languages. We are known and commended by other linguists for our documentation of dying languages and efforts to preserve and/or develop them. Currently there are several options for involvement with endangered languages. The choice depends on national and institutional philosophy, local opinion, and resources available.

1. Do nothing; accept changes in language use as normal. Such a philosophy would perhaps reflect Edwards' (1985:86) assertion that it is natural for language use to change, and 'more reasonable to consider group and individual identity altering... than it is to see the abandonment of original or static positions as decay or loss'.

2. Especially in the case of a moribund language, document the language (or enable other linguists to do so), recording as much data as possible. For example, Sarah Gudschinsky's (1974) work with the last known speaker of Ofaié, during 1958 and 1959, provided valuable linguistic information about the composition of the Gê language family. The arguments for being involved in such documentation include the safeguarding of linguistic diversity, contributing to a knowledge base for language universals, and the western idea that knowledge in and of itself is valuable. There are some ethical questions, however. One is motivation: all too often the creation of a linguistic market. Another concerns the rights of indigenous people to their languages; many want at least collaborative research, better yet to be trained to do the linguistic research themselves; others would allow only research with direct benefit to the community.

3. A third option is to attempt some sort of language salvage, revitalization, or maintenance program, including language development strategies such as literacy, education, literature production, translation, etc. There are certain problems in prioritizing needs for such intervention: should we even attempt to save languages from extinction? include even the smallest groups? consider cost efficiency and the number of people who might be benefited? We have no end of case histories showing both failure and success of various types of intervention programs, some describing carefully researched contributing factors. But basically, what keeps a language alive is its social function; the only people who can stop a language from shrinking or dying are the speakers of that language.


Dorian, Nancy C. 1980. Language shift in community and individual: The phenomenon of the laggard semi-speaker. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 25.85-94.

Edwards, John. 1985. Language, society and identity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Fishman, Joshua A. 1991. Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Gudschinsky, Sarah C. 1974. Fragmentos de Ofaié: A descrição de uma língua extinta. Série Lingüística 3.177-249.

Krauss, Michael. 1992. The world's languages in crisis. Language 68(1).1-42.

Selected additional readings:

Dorian, Nancy C. 1987. The value of language-maintenance efforts which are unlikely to succeed. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 68.57-67.

Dorian, Nancy C. (ed.). 1989. Investigating obsolescence: Studies in language contraction and death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Endangered languages. 1992. Language, volume 68.

International Journal of the Sociology of Language, issues:

Plenary sessions texts: Endangered languages, 15th International Congress of Linguists, 10-14 August 1992, Québec: Université Laval.

Robins, Robert H. and Eugenius M. Uhlenbeck (eds.). 1991. Endangered languages. Oxford: Berg.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Sociolingo: International Sociolinguistics Department Newsletter, No. 7, Fall 1994, pages 1-3. Dallas, TX: SIL.