“[Linguistic diversity] constitutes one of the great treasures of humanity, an enormous storehouse of expressive power and profound understanding of the universe. The loss of hundreds of languages that have already passed into history is an intellectual catastrophe in every way comparable in magnitude to the ecological catastrophe we face today as the earth’s tropical forests are swept by fire. Each language still spoken is fundamental to the personal, social and — a key term in the discourse of indigenous peoples — spiritual identity of its speakers.”
-Ofelia Zepeda and Jane Hill.
The inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Language
“I was a language, humanity’s greatest creation.
I was the skeleton around which the flesh of society and the soul of culture were firmly bound.
I was a god and a demon; a letter of love and a message of hate; a harbinger of doom and a herald of peace; a redeemer and an executioner.
I was the hope of the oppressed and the tool of tyranny.
I was the last remnant of independence, of history, of individuality and of hope. With my death entire cultures vanished and entire histories remained unwritten.
I defined nature, I wrote history, I created religion, I promoted equality and I gave birth to science.
I was gradually replaced by “better” languages, those that made lying easier and cursing more pleasing.
I was smoked out of my culture because I was too archaic, too unfashionable and too familiar.
I bid you to remember my kin and to let my fate fall to no other.
I bid you to respect all languages, especially your own, and treat them with the respect you’d treat your culture and your nation’s heritage with.”
Facts on language extinction
- Languages are dying faster now than ever before in recorded history.
- Of the approximately 5,000 languages spoken in the world today (an estimation) at least 500 face extinction very soon (they have less than 100 speakers) and half are endangered (fewer than 1,000 speakers or in rapid decline).
- Research predicts that even in a good scenario half of the world’s languages will become extinct within the next 50 to 100 years.
- Keeping languages alive is the responsibility of parents; documenting them is the responsibility of linguists.
- An overwhelming amount of the world’s languages have been very poorly documented, meaning that in extinction an entire linguistic culture and history will disappear.
Status of the Uralic language family
The Uralic language family consists of more than 30 languages with approximately 25 million speakers.
The three largest languages in the family are Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian. They have approximately 23 million speakers combined.
Languages such as Liv (Livonian), Vod (Votian) and Enets have only a handful of native speakers left, and speakers of a majority of the remaining languages can be counted in tens of thousands. Even the languages with speakers numbering 500,000 (Mordvin, Komi, Udmurt) are endangered, because the native speakers are elderly and the young tend to give up their language in favour of Russian.
In the recent years linguistic awareness in Russia has led to positive action on behalf of language preservation, but for some languages help might have arrived too late.
If these languages become extinct, a valuable amount of information from Finland’s neighbouring nations and tribes will be lost, along with knowledge of our mutual past and the origins of our people.