The Endangered Languages Project

A project to support language preservation and documentation around the world

Silent Tongues: Language Extinction

To understand the plight of endangered languages today, it is valuable to consider just how many languages have become extinct so far, and compare this with the numbers of currently living languages and currently endangered languages. However, “extinction” is not straightforward.

The list presented below is of languages which are well and truly extinct. There are other languages also that are sometimes declared to have no remaining native speakers but whose status may not be definitive.

When does a language become “extinct?”

Where there have been no known speakers for hundreds or even thousands of years, extinction is clear and uncontroversial. However, there are certain languages about which one source says the language in question is “extinct,” “probably extinct,” “possibly extinct,” or has “no known speakers,” where another equally credible source reports it as still having speakers. In this Catalogue, languages of this sort as well as languages whose last fluent speaker is reported to have died in recent times, even when sources do not disagree are listed as “dormant.” In some cases of languages recently declared extinct, other speakers were found later on. These languages are included in the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, together with whatever information is reported in sources about their status.

In the case of some of these languages, communities are engaged in efforts to revive them; languages which have lost their last native speakers but which have on­going revitalization efforts are called “awakening” languages. To encourage efforts toward recovery of languages that lacks fluent native speakers, we avoid the designation “extinct,” and speak instead of “dormant” languages, and when they have revival programs then of “awakening” languages.

Extinction trends

The lists below demonstrate starkly the problem of language endangerment by showing just how many of the world’s languages have lost all their speakers and are dormant, in contrast to the great many languages that are currently endangered, listed in this catalogue. Already, all the languages of more than 100 language families (including language isolates) no longer have native speakers from among the 420 known independent language families (including isolates) of the world—24% of the linguistic diversity on the planet. Worse, this number will change radically and rapidly. The Catalogue of Endangered Languages has just over 3,000 entries from among the approximately 7,000 living languages in the world—by this count, 43% of living languages are endangered! If this trend continues, the number of languages which no longer have speakers will soon swell dramatically. Clearly, languages on a course towards loss of their speakers are vastly more numerous now than they have been in the past.


The research for the Endangered Language Catalogue project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation: Collaborative Research: Endangered Languages Catalog (ELCat), BCS­1058096 to the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa (Principal Investigator, Lyle Campbell) and BCS­1057725 to Eastern Michigan University (Principal Investigators Helen Aristar­Dry and Anthony Aristar). The goals and basic organization of the Catalogue were established in an international workshop with some 50 specialists from around the world supported by National Science Foundation grant Collaborative Research: Endangered Languages Information and Infrastructure Project (NSF 0924140 ).