Australia top "hot spot" for vanishing languages

Society Materials 20 September 2007 00:29 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - Linguists alarmed at the inceasing extinction of many indigenous languages identified five global "hot spots" on Tuesday where the problem is worst, led by northern Australia and a region of South America.

The linguists are part of the Enduring Voices project that seeks to document and revitalize languages slipping toward oblivion, often spoken by indigenous peoples like Australia's aborigines whose cultures were trampled by settlers.

David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, the project's co-director, said there are 6,992 recognized distinct languages worldwide. He said on average one language vanishes every two weeks, often as its last elderly speakers perish.

The project, backed by National Geographic magazine, named the region of northern Australia that includes Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia as the place where local languages are most threatened. The linguists said aboriginal Australia harbors some of the most endangered languages, with 153 different ones spoken in this region.

A region of central South America covering Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia was second on the list of "hot spots," with indigenous languages being overcome by Spanish, Portuguese or other indigenous languages.

The linguists said Bolivia has twice the language diversity of the nations of Europe combined, but many of the smaller tongues are being smothered by Spanish or other languages.

Placing third and fifth on the list were regions of North America where the languages of native peoples are imperiled -- an area including British Columbia in Canada and the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon, and an area covering the U.S. states of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Eastern Siberia, also with endangered native languages, was the No. 4 "hot spot."