Database lists endangered languages

The World Oral Literature Project (WOLP) has taken a leaf out of the biologists’ book, and launched an online database of the world’s disappearing languages.

The database includes records for 3,524 world languages, ranging from those deemed ‘vulnerable’ to others that, like Latin, remain well understood but are no longer generally spoken. Users can search by the number of speakers, level of endangerment, region or country.

The WLOP hopes readers worldwide will contribute information about both the languages themselves and their stories, songs, folklore and other tradition.

“We want this database to be a dynamic and open resource, taking advantage of online technology to create a collaborative record that people will want to contribute to,” says director Dr Mark Turin.

At present, the world has more than 6,500 living languages – but up to half are expected to die out as spoken vernaculars by the end of the century.

“While some severely endangered languages have been well documented, others, which may appear to be less at risk, have few, if any, records,” says Turin. “At the moment if you’re a researcher, a member of an endangered speech community or just an interested member of the public, there is no way to pull all these useful but disparate resources together in one place.”

Of the 3,524 languages listed, about 150 are in an ‘extremely critical’ condition. For many, the number of known living speakers has fallen to single figures.

Examples include the Southern Pomo language, spoken by Native Americans in parts of California; Gamilaraay, the language of the Kamilaroi of New South Wales; and the language of the Sami communities in northwestern Russia.

Others are ‘secret’ languages, such as Polari – a form of slang originally used by British fairground communities, but later adopted by gay subcultures as a type of code.