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196 Indian languages endangered: UNESCO

February 20, 2009 19:15 IST

With 196 of its languages listed as endangered, India, a nation with great linguistic diversity, tops the UNESCO's list of countries having maximum number of dialects on the verge of extinction. India is closely followed by the US which stands to lose 192 languages and Indonesia, where 147 are in peril.

The facts were revealed in the latest Atlas of World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing unveiled by the UN's cultural agency UNESCO on the eve of International Mother Language Day tomorrow.

The atlas classifies around 2,500 of the 6,000 languages spoken worldwide as endangered.

It further adds that nearly 200 languages have fewer than 10 speakers and 178 others have between 10 and 50 speakers. It reveals that over 200 languages used in the world have died out over the last three generations, 538 are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe.

"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," UNESCO Director-General Kochiro Matsuura said.

The language of Manx in the Isle of Man died in 1974 with the death of Ned Maddrell while Eyak in Alaska met its demise last year when Marie Smith Jones passed away.

According to the database, nearly one-third of all of the world's languages are spoken in sub-Saharan Africa, and it is estimate that 10 per cent of them will disappear during the course of the next century. However, the situation of languages is not equally dire worldwide. For example, Papua New Guinea, the most linguistically diverse with over 800 languages believed to be spoken there, has 88 relatively few endangered languages.

Some languages classified as extinct, including Cornish in the UK and Ssh in New Caledonia, are being actively revitalised and could potentially become living again. Still there is disheartening news.

There are 199 languages in the world spoken by fewer than a dozen people, including Karaim which has six speakers in Ukraine and Wichita, spoken by 10 people in the US state of Oklahoma. The updated data represents a multi-fold increase from the last atlas compiled in 2001 which listed 900 languages threatened with extinction.

More than 30 linguists worked on the Atlas, which highlights how the phenomenon of disappearing languages is evident in every region and in varying economic conditions.

The database, which is continually supplemented, corrected and updated on user contributions, ranks the dying languages as unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.

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