Photo. There is spoken more than 800 languages on Papua New Guinea today.
The Atlas, presented on the eve of International Mother Language Day (21 February 2009), enables searches according to several criteria, and ranks the 2,500 endangered languages that are listed according to five different levels of vitality: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.
According to UNESCO (www.Unesco.org), some of the data are especially worrying: out of the approximately 6,000 existing languages in the world, more than 200 have become extinct during the last three generations, 538 are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe.
However, the situation presented in the Atlas is not universally alarming. Thus, Papua New Guinea, the country which has the greatest linguistic diversity on the planet (more than 800 languages are believed to be spoken there), also has relatively few endangered languages (88).
Certain languages that are shown as extinct in the Atlas are being actively revitalized, like Cornish (Cornwall) and Sîshëë (New Caledonia), and it is possible that they will become living languages again.
Furthermore, thanks to favourable linguistic policies, there has been an increase in the number of speakers of several indigenous languages. It is the case for Central Aymara and Quechua in Peru, Maori in New Zealand, Guarani in Paraguay, and several languages in Canada, the United States and Mexico.
The Atlas also shows that due to economic factors, different linguistic policies and sociological phenomena, a given language may have varying degrees of vitality in different countries.
The creation of this interactive Atlas, made possible with financial assistance from Norway, is part of the UNESCO programme for safeguarding endangered languages. Acting as a clearing house, the Organization facilitates access to available data and maps, and serves as a forum for debate that is open to communities, specialists and national authorities.
Stein Morten Lund, 12 February 2009
The degrees of endangerment
Increasingly, information and knowledge are key determinants of wealth creation, social transformation and human development. Language is the primary vector for communicating knowledge and traditions, thus the opportunity to use one’s language on global information networks such as the Internet will determine the extent to which one can participate in emerging knowledge societies.
The Government of Norway is one of the most significant supporters of UNESCO's activities in the field of intangible cultural heritage, since it began supporting ICH projects in 2004/2005. The current cumulative contribution (2004-2008) of the Government of Norway for ICH through the FIT amounts to some 2 million USD, and more projects are awaiting to receive approval.