Big languages get bigger
This is not a new trend. The languages of powerful groups spread, whether through official language policies or the high prestige that speaking the imperial language can bring. For more on this trend, Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word (HarperCollins, 2005) traces the path of a number of these large languages.
Small languages get smaller and die out.
This is also not a new phenomenon, and it is clearly related to the first trend. As big languages spread, children whose parents speak a small language often grow up learning the larger language. Depending on social factors and attitudes toward the ancestral language, those children or their children may never learn the smaller language, or forget it as it falls out of use. This has been happening throughout human history, with an extreme acceleration in the recent past. For example, Northern California would have been a Language Hotspot 100 or maybe even 50 years ago; many of its small languages have died out recently.
These two trends combined create very unequal numbers of speakers for the languages of the world.
Language diversity is spread unevenly.
- 37 languages
- 18 genetic units
- .486 genetic index
- 164 languages
- 18 genetic units
- .110 genetic index
Speakers of small languages use technology to revitalize their languages.
Some parts of the world have been more heavily affected by the growth of large languages and the death of small languages than others. This leads to uneven patches of language diversity.
For example, the country of Bolivia holds 36 languages belonging to 17 genetic units, leading to an extremely high genetic index of .472. The entire continent of Europe, on the other hand, which has had a long history of large states and imperial powers, holds 164 languages belonging to only 18 genetic units. Most of Europe's languages belong to only a few genetic units. Europe has a very low genetic index: .110.
Bolivia has over twice the level of linguistic diversity as all of Europe combined.
A narrow strip of Northern Australia, accounting for 10-15% of its landmass, has over three times the level of diversity found across Europe as a whole.
Not all endangered languages are found in the Language Hotspots, since hotspots require a concentration of endangered languages, not just individual examples. Such languages include Hawaiian, the Saami (Lapp) languages of Scandinavia, and Ainu of Japan (which was also spoken in Eastern Siberia until the Second World War).
Some areas used to be Hotspots but no longer have many languages spoken. Two areas in which this is true include northern California and southern Oregon and ancient Anatolia and Mesopotamia. In Anatolia/Mesopotamia Turkic has moved in, and Iranian and Semitic in some form remain until today, but Anatolian, Hurro-Urartian, Hattic, Sumerian and others have vanished, many practically without leaving any trace. In California and Oregon, a handful of speakers of a small number languages remain, but most groups have passed out of existence during the last 150 years.
As we have entered the 21st Century Indigenous communities around the globe have been using modern technology in earnest to help maintain and even revitalize their threatened and dying languages and culture. Thousands of tribal communities from East Africa, to the outback of Australia, to the forests of the Northwest Pacific Coast are creating educational programs to record the stories and oral traditions of their elderly last speakers. Using cameras, film, and audio, community members are creating powerful archives of material, as well as elaborate word dictionaries. Passing the knowledge along to the younger generation has become of paramount importance and urgency. Without the younger generations speaking and understanding the words and stories of the ancestors, the language dies. And when the language dies the culture dies.
For more on language revitalization, visit our revitalization page.