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.
degree of danger that languages face has been expressed in five different
Many languages affected
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
endangered are: Abaza, Homshetsma, Laz, Pontus Greek, Romani, Suret (a language
similar to Assyrian) and Western Armenian.
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.
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.
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
order to measure the danger a language is in, UNESCO uses nine criteria:
number of speakers
members’ attitude towards their own language
in domains of language use
and institutional language attitudes and policies, including official status
and quality of documentation
to new domains and media
of materials for language education and literacy
of speakers within the total population
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.
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
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)