16 of the Most Endangered Languages in the World

There are over 7,000 documented languages currently spoken around the world. However, that number is expected to steadily decline in the coming years.

Australia National University conducted a study in 2021 on endangered languages. While around half of the world’s 7,000 recognised languages are currently endangered, it is estimated that approximately 1,500 of these endangered languages could no longer be spoken by the end of the century. In this article, we explore some of the languages that are expected to disappear by the end of the century and the cultures we will be losing with them.

Ainu

The Ainu language is a critically endangered language primarily spoken by the Ainu people in Japan. Historically, the Ainu people lived in the northern regions of Japan, particularly Hokkaido, and parts of the Russian Far East.

The Ainu language has been under serious threat due to a long history of assimilation policies by the Japanese government, which aimed to suppress Ainu culture and language. The Ainu population was marginalised, and speaking their native tongue was actively discouraged in favour of Japanese. As a result, the number of fluent Ainu speakers has dwindled, and the language is now critically endangered. The language is believed to be spoken by only a handful of elderly people, approximately 10, who belong to the Ainu community.

Irish

The Irish language, also known as Gaeilge, is one of the official languages of the Republic of Ireland and holds a special place in the nation’s history and cultural identity. However, the Irish language faces the challenge of endangerment due to historical factors and language shifts.

For centuries, Ireland experienced colonisation and British rule, during which the use of English was encouraged while the speaking of Irish was suppressed. This historical context, coupled with the dominance of English globally, has led to a decline in native Irish speakers, especially in urban areas and among younger generations.

In recent years, the government has implemented plans to revitalise the language, including educational initiatives, bringing it back to be taught in schools.

Scottish Gaelic

Scottish Gaelic, also known as Gàidhlig, is primarily spoken in Scotland, as well as in immigrant communities in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in Canada. Like many minority languages, Scottish Gaelic is endangered due to a complex interplay of historical and sociocultural factors.

Gaelic was the principal language of Scotland; however, rebellions in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in it being persecuted. By 1972, it was essentially banned in schools nationwide due to the Education Scotland Act. This led to a significant decline in native speakers, with older generations being the primary preservers of the language. Although efforts have been made to promote Scottish Gaelic in recent years, including its inclusion in primary schools and their corresponding high schools, the number of fluent speakers remains relatively low.

The language is considered endangered, and its survival depends on continued revitalisation efforts and the transmission of the language to younger generations.

Cappadocian Greek

Cappadocian Greek, or Cappadocian, was historically spoken in the region of Cappadocia in central Turkey, which was once home to a thriving Greek community. However, it is now on the brink of extinction. Cappadocian Greek’s endangerment can be traced back to the late 19th century when a significant population exchange took place between Greece and Turkey, leading to the dispersal of the Greek-speaking population.

It was discovered in the early 2000s that the language had gone underground with elderly speakers in Larissa and Thessaloniki. Today, there are 1,000 – 2,000 speakers of this language, making it a critically endangered language under UNESCO, meaning it can become fully extinct in our lifetime.

Rapa Nui

The Rapa Nui language is used on Easter Island, a volcanic island in the South Pacific Ocean. It is the native language of the Rapa Nui people, who are indigenous to the island. Despite its unique cultural and historical significance, Rapa Nui is a critically endangered language, with less than 3,400 native speakers left.

The language’s endangerment is primarily due to the geographical isolation of Easter Island, which has limited interactions with the outside world. As a result, the younger generations on the island are increasingly exposed to and using Spanish, the dominant language of Chile (Easter Island is a Chilean territory), for education and daily communication. This shift towards Spanish has diminished the use of Rapa Nui among the island’s residents, making it more common on special occasions and cultural events rather than everyday life.

Saami

Saami, often called Sami or Saami, is a family of Uralic languages spoken by the Saami people, who primarily inhabit the northern regions of Scandinavia, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, and parts of Russia.

The Saami languages, with their rich linguistic diversity, are endangered as a result of the historical assimilation and suppression of Saami culture and languages by national governments, particularly in Norway and Sweden. This led to the discouragement of Saami-speaking and the adoption of dominant national languages. There are around 25,000 – 35,000 speakers of this group of languages left in these Northern regions.

One of the Saami languages, Ter Sami, is nearly extinct with only 30 native speakers worldwide. Ume Sami, which also belongs to this family of languages, is moribund, with approximately 20 speakers. It is spoken in the Ume River Valley, an area encompassing parts of northern Sweden and Norway. It is completely extinct in Norway and almost extinct in Sweden.

Mudburra

The Mudburra language is an Aboriginal Australian language primarily spoken by the Mudburra people in Northern Australia, specifically in the Barkly Tablelands region in the Northern Territory.

The younger generations within the Mudburra community are increasingly adopting English as their primary language for education and communication, which has led to a significant decline in the number of native speakers. Additionally, historical factors, such as the impact of residential schools and the pressure of dominant Western culture, have contributed to the erosion of indigenous languages, including Mudburra.

That being said, the language might actually be growing now. Australia’s 2006 census estimated that there were 47 speakers left, but the 2016 report showed an increase to 92 speakers of Mudburra at home.

Urum

Urum is a Turkic language spoken by ethnic Greeks who live in a few villages in Georgia and Southeastern Ukraine. This Turkic language is considered to be a variant of Crimean Tatar, originally spoken in the south of Crimea. In recent years, there has been a deviation from teaching children Urum to more common languages of the region, leaving a limited number of new speakers in younger generations. Currently, it is estimated that there are between 10,000 – 99,000 native speakers of this language worldwide.

Southern Paiute

The Southern Paiute language is a member of the Southern Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. This Native American language is spoken by the Native American Southern Paiute people, primarily in southwest Utah, northern Arizona, southern Nevada and northwest New Mexico, in the United States.

Over the years, Southern Paiute communities have faced cultural assimilation and the suppression of their native language through various policies, including the establishment of boarding schools that attempted to eliminate Native American culture. This led to a decline in native speakers and a shift towards English. The last count in 2010 found that there are around 1,640 speakers left; however, most of the speakers are over 50 years old.

Yarawi

The Yarawi language is a dying language spoken in the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea. It belongs to the Binanderean family to the Trans-New Guinea phylum of languages. While the language was in use throughout the 20th century, today, there is only one last living speaker of the language. Natives are now more popularly using the language of Binandere instead.

Hawaiʻian

Hawaiʻian was the native language of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, which had a language literacy rate of more than 90%. However, after the takeover of the monarchy in 1896, speaking Hawaiʻian was discouraged, and the official language was replaced with English. Native speakers of the Hawaiʻian language dwindled as a result.

However, the Hawaiʻian Renaissance in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in the native language, and efforts to promote the language re-emerged. Hawaiʻian language immersion schools were created in the mid-1980s to reintroduce the language to the island’s future generations. A 2016 state government report found that more than 18,000 people living in the state speak Hawaiʻian, as well as English, at home, a massive increase from the 2,000 native speakers they had in the 1970s.

Potawatomi

The Potawatomi language, spoken by the Potawatomi people in the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, is critically endangered. This verb-based language is characterised by long words and a lot of sounds that make it difficult to learn.

In recent years, the number of first-language Potawatomi speakers has declined to 10, most of whom are close to 70 years old. This small group of speakers includes only those who learned Potawatomi as their mother tongue at home and then learned English later in life. However, there are Potawatomi speakers who are teaching the language to others. Many Potawatomi tribes also have language programs open to anyone interested in learning the language.

Te Reo Māori

Te Reo Māori, the native language spoken by the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, is classified as a threatened language. Te Reo Māori’s endangerment can be traced back to the historical impact of British colonisation, during which the language was marginalised and suppressed in favour of English. Up until the 1980s, the Te Reo Māori language, along with anything to do with Māori culture, was banned. As a result, the language started dying out, with only 5% of young Māori people speaking the language in the 1970s. However, with efforts by the Māori, backed by the government, more than 25% speak it now.

Coptic

The Coptic language, the direct descendant of the ancient Egyptian language, is classified as an endangered language. The endangerment of Coptic can be attributed to several factors, including centuries of Arab-Islamic rule and the gradual Arabisation of Egypt. The suppression and marginalisation of Coptic culture and language, coupled with the widespread use of Arabic, have led to a decline in the number of Coptic speakers.

Although Coptic isn’t spoken much in communities, it is still the official language of the Coptic Orthodox Church and Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt. Their church services are conducted in Coptic, which means that parishioners need to have a general understanding of the language to follow along. The churches have also begun offering courses in Coptic to help revive the language. Its prevalence in the church ensures that there are several fluent speakers of the language in Egypt today.

Jeju

The Jeju language, or Jejueo, is the native language of the people of Jeju Island in South Korea. The language isn’t widely spoken, and it is estimated that there are only around 5,000 fluent speakers left.

The Jeju language has been on the decline as a result of the Jeju uprising and the Korean wars back in the mid-1900s. Since then, it is estimated that only a small percentage of the elderly population on Jeju island speak the language. Interestingly, Jeju uses the same alphabet as standard Korean but cannot be understood by Korean speakers.

Gagauz (Bessarabia)

Gagauz is a Turkic language spoken by small communities in several parts of Eastern Europe. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Gagauz speakers moved to the Bujak area, a region located in the south of the Republic of Moldova. Today, Bujak is the main area where Gagauz is spoken. There are also some communities speaking the language in Odesa, Ukraine and near Varna, Bulgaria. Smaller Gagauz settlements were also found in Romania, Serbia and Central Asia. In the Bujakarea of Moldova, there are around 115,000 speakers, but in most communities, the language is not being taught to children, and its usage is gradually declining.

The Future of Endangered Languages

While the survival of these languages is crucial for the preservation of indigenous cultures, history and identity, as it stands, there is no guarantee of the continuation of many minority languages. However, more and more language preservation efforts are being made worldwide to combat language endangerment and keep our linguistic diversity alive. With the efforts of linguists around the world, there is a continued hope for many languages to remain alive for as long as possible.