21 February, International Mother Language Day, has been marked with the publication of a new edition of the "Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger". The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has published an interactive digital Atlas based on information collected by over 30 linguists.
The degree of danger that languages face has been expressed in five different categories:
- definitely endangered
- severely endangered
- critically endangered
Many languages affected
A staggering total of 2,500 languages is affected, a large percentage of the 6,700 languages spoken today. Of these 2,500, around 230 have been extinct since the 1950s. As for Turkey, the atlas says that 15 languages are endangered, and three more are extinct.
Fifteen endangered, three extinct in Turkey
Four languages in Turkey were categorised as unsafe: Zazaki, Abkhaz, Adyge, and Kabard-Cherkes.
Definitely endangered are: Abaza, Homshetsma, Laz, Pontus Greek, Romani, Suret (a language similar to Assyrian) and Western Armenian.
Three languages are severely endangered: Gagavuz, a language spoken mostly in Moldova and by a diaspora in Turkey, Assyrian and Ladino, the language spoken by the Sephardic Jewish community in Turkey.
One more language is critically endangered: Hértevin, a language that used to be spoken in the province of Siirt in the southeast of Turkey. In 1999, there were 1,000 speakers left.
The UNESCO Atlas says that three languages have become extinct in Turkey. Cappadocian Greek is extinct in Turkey and critically endangered worldwide. A language called Mlahso, which was spoken in the Lice district of Diyarbakır became extinct when its last speaker died in 1995. A language called Ubykh was lost with the death of its last registered speaker in 1992.
Factors affecting language vitality
In order to measure the danger a language is in, UNESCO uses nine criteria:
- Absolute number of speakers
- Intergenerational language transmission
- Community members’ attitude towards their own language
- Shifts in domains of language use
- Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, including official status and use
- Type and quality of documentation
- Response to new domains and media
- Availability of materials for language education and literacy
- Proportion of speakers within the total population
UNESCO runs safeguarding projects for languages in different countries, working towards strengthening the use of languages in culture, education, communication and science. However, no such language protection programmes are run in Turkey.
How can a language be prevented from disappearing?
As UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura stressed, “The death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of intangible cultural heritage, especially the invaluable heritage of traditions and oral expressions of the community that spoke it – from poems and legends to proverbs and jokes. The loss of languages is also detrimental to humanity’s grasp of biodiversity, as they transmit much knowledge about the nature and the universe.”
Thus it is important to protect languages. According to UNESCO’s website,
"The most important thing that can be done to keep a language from disappearing is to create favourable conditions for its speakers to speak the language and teach it to their children. This often requires national policies that recognize and protect minority languages, education systems that promote mother-tongue instruction, and creative collaboration between community members and linguists to develop a writing system and introduce formal instruction in the language."
"Since the most crucial factor is the attitude of the speaker community toward its own language, it is essential to create a social and political environment that encourages multilingualism and respect for minority languages so that speaking such a language is an asset rather than a liability. Some languages now have so few speakers that they cannot be maintained, but linguists can, if the community so wishes, record as much of the language as possible so that it does not disappear without a trace."
Readers interested in some of the many languages spoken in Turkey are referred to the links on mother languages in Turkey to the right of this article. (TK/AG)
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