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Pioneering study on endangered language families co-authored by SIL researcher

While individual languages make unique contributions to the world’s linguistic heritage, language families, by virtue of their shared heritage, have related contributions to make. The endangerment of entire families, while implied by the loss of language, has not been explored to date. Here, we examine estimates of how many linguistic stocks (the largest subgroups of related languages that are reconstructable) consist entirely of endangered languages and thus are endangered themselves.

-From “Endangered Language Families” by Dr. Douglas Whalen and Dr. Gary Simons

(April 2012) Groundbreaking research on the vitality of language families is the subject of an article recently published in Language by Dr. Douglas Whalen, Vice President of Research for Haskins Laboratories and Distinguished Professor at The City University of New York, and Dr. Gary Simons, Chief Research Officer for SIL International. With every language that ceases to be spoken, the richness of the world’s linguistic diversity decreases, cultural heritage is weakened and important knowledge is lost forever. As significant as the loss of individual languages is, extinction on the scale of language families is exponentially more devastating. “Endangered Language Families” provides an analysis of the statistics and examples that illustrate the value of documenting the world’s languages.

Based on data from the Ethnologue and UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Whalen and Simons classified languages and language families (referred to as stocks) as belonging to one of three categories: extinct, moribund or viable.

Through their research Whalen and Simons found that, “Since [1950] 15% of the world’s linguistic stocks have become extinct and another 27% are now moribund in that direct estimates of endangerment indicate that no member languages are being learned by children.” The Americas region has been most significantly impacted by the loss of language families, followed by the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe.

In addition to the impact on the community, when a language becomes extinct, valuable information about language universals is also lost to researchers. Some “family resemblance” of shared characteristics may be preserved in related languages, but if an entire language family is lost without documentation, that information is gone forever. Whalen and Simons observe:

The loss of a language family means the loss of important information that may shed light on the history and prehistory of a region. For instance, imagine that the entire Mayan family had disappeared before any of the writing system was deciphered. It was only through careful analysis of the workings of the descendant languages that we made any real progress on deciphering one of the richest orthographies ever invented.

Since its beginning in 1934, SIL has published more than 11,500 works about research in more than 2,800 languages. SIL supports ethnolinguistic minority communities around the world in their efforts to build capacity for the sustainable development of their own languages.

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