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SIL Electronic Working Papers 2006-002

Towards a categorization of endangerment of the world's languages

Author  Lewis, M. Paul

Language endangerment is a serious concern. Efforts to define what an "Endangered Language" is have been hampered by the complexity of the phenomenon, which has made it difficult to provide a succinct, generalizable, and readily comprehensible categorization scheme. At the UNESCO Experts Meeting on Safeguarding Endangered Languages (March 2003) a framework was proposed (Brenzinger et al. 2003) which uses nine factors of vitality and endangerment as a useable and relatively objective heuristic for the assessment of endangerment. This paper applies that framework to a diverse selection of the world's languages sampled from the Ethnologue (Grimes 2000) on the basis of geographic location and size in order to initiate and evaluate the feasibility of a comprehensive assessment of the state of the world's languages. The usefulness, accuracy, and generalizability of this UNESCO framework is evaluated. The framework is applied to 100 languages from all parts of the world demonstrating different vitality profiles for different languages and exposing the varied nature of language endangerment. The nine factors considered are:

  1. Intergenerational language transmission
  2. Absolute numbers of speakers
  3. Proportion of speakers within the total population
  4. Loss of existing language domains
  5. Response to new domains and media
  6. Materials for language education and literacy
  7. Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies
  8. Community members' attitudes towards their own language
  9. Amount and quality of documentation

  Towards a categorization of endangerment of the world's languages
Published  2006
Subjects  Endangered languages
Keywords  Language endangerment; language vitality; UNESCO framework for evaluating language endangerment; Endangered languages