When is a language extinct?

The recent publication of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger has generated quite a few new stories and discussion.

The Atlas has a list of 2,500 endangered languages ranked according to five different levels: unsafe (607), definitely endangered (632), severely endangered (502), critically endangered (538) and extinct (200). Of these languages, 199 have fewer than 10 speakers, and 178 have between 10 and 50 speakers. The Atlas is apparently available online, although I can only find information about endangered languages in Africa.

Among the extinct languages it mentions Manx and Cornish, which has stirred up a lot of comment, especially among those who speak these languages and are learning them. For example, the website iomtoday.co.im tells us that the ‘Manx language is very much alive’ and there are articles on Manx and Cornish on the BBC site.

The comments on the iomtoday site are interesting and seem to agree that Manx is nobody’s first language, which I believe is true. One commenter points out that Manx is dead because “there are no longer any monoglot Manx speakers, or even speakers with Manx as a first language”. I’m not sure why it’s essential for there to be monoglot speakers of a language for it to be considered living. There are very few, if any, monoglot speakers of Welsh, Irish or Scottish Gaelic over the age of 5 or so, but there are plenty of people who speak them as their first language.

My dissertation will be a study of the revival of Manx, and this will give me a better idea of the current state of the language.

This entry was posted in Cornish, Endangered languages, Irish, Language, Manx, Scottish Gaelic.

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