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Классификация языков по степени риска их утери

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Classification of languages according to the level of their extinction risk



After being accepted to English philology faculty of the University, in addition to learning one more language, I deepened my understanding of language classification, general history of languages and sad fate of some beautiful but almost lost languages. And that is going to be the main topic of this article, which I hope you find interesting.

Nowadays there are more than 5000 different languages in the world, including dialects and various local forms of communication and only 10% of them possess their own writing – rest is verbal.

Some of these languages are widespread, some are so rear that got almost extinct. And in era of globalization, while boarders are getting more and more transparent and as humanity slowly but inevitably is becoming a one big family, the risk of complete extinction of one languages and diffusion and dominance of others is just a matter of time. According to UN prediction by the end of upcoming century world will lose about 90% of currently available languages, with cultural and scientific heritage they carry.

Even today we can see that top 25 languages of the world are being spoken by almost 5 bln. people out of 6 bln. population of our planet. And top 5 languages (Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian) are spoken by 2,5-3 bln. people, with steady growth of this figures.

The only period in modern history when number of flourishing languages increased was beginning of 90th. The collapse of USSR led to independence in many of countries, thus leading to rise of national heritage, culture and language. For example from 1924 till 1991 number of Russian speaking population was constantly growing in Republic of Uzbekistan, getting close to 80% by the end of 80th, while native language was slowly declining. But since 1991 to nowadays languages situation changed to opposite, making Uzbek language dominant all over the country. The same is observed in almost all post-Soviet countries.

From one side, it is good that globalization stimulated a lot of people all around the world to learn foreign languages, but on the other hand, it leads to slow death of their own languages and literature. That’s why many countries of the world are making great efforts to support their native languages and heritage they gained during the years and centuries of language formation. I will describe some more actions performed by world society to save language variety below.

From abovementioned information we can understand that a problem exists, a problem of overwhelming domination of some languages and inevitable extinction of others in future. In fact to have a clear picture of such a future and its consequences we must gaze a little deeper in to classification of languages and their social status.

Social ranks of languages depend primarily on:

- communicative distribution of the language (prevalence and diversity of usage of the language);

- presence of written language and length of its history;

- level of standardization of the language (availability of rules and strict norms for language forms);

- legal status of the language (national, official, constitutional and etc.);

- confessional status of the language (level of fulfillment of specific group or nation’s confessional purposes ) and

- target status of the language (reasons why a language is being used: as a subject, as a language of education, as a foreign language and etc.)



Communicative status of the language is one of the most important characteristics for the survival of the language (though all of the abovementioned points are very important, this one plays the role of some sort of nutrient for feeding the growth of other ones). This status includes not only communication done among population verbally, but also all sorts of reading and listening communication like TV, newspapers, radio, internet and etc.

Leaders in this sphere are English (spoken in 47 countries worldwide), French (26), Arab (21), Spanish (20) and Portuguese (7).

According to communicative rank in linguistics, languages are subdivided into:

-World languages – six basic languages accepted by UN as the languages of official international and inter-social communication. These are English, Arab, Spanish, Chinese, French and Russian. This group of languages is not permanent, for instance two centuries ago leading role was held by French, now substituted by English, and before French - Portuguese was dominating. In ancient times Latin language was in lead and now it is extinct however. So the members of World languages category are replaceable.

-International languages – these languages are less widespread than the previous group but are used for communication between several countries or ethnical groups of population. Usually such languages are accepted as official languages in several countries. Examples are Portuguese and Suahili (in Africa).

-State (national) languages – legally approved as an official language of communication in at least one country, this group of languages is present in almost every country of the world. Examples are Uzbek, Japanese, German. Also some countries have several State languages.

-Regional languages – being non-official, these languages usually have written form and are employed for communication in some groups of people within one country. Examples are Tibetan language in Tibet, Chjuan language in China, or Igbo language in Nigeria.

-Local languages – usually only verbal this group constitutes the biggest part of language variety. There are thousands of such languages in the world. And dialect of Tajik language spoken in Uzbekistan, which I mentioned in the beginning of my article, is one of the examples for local language. Vast majority of local languages is practiced in China and African countries, where one country may have hundreds of local languages, and two villages located 20 kilometers from each other can hardly understand each other’s speech.



Written language is another important point in language diffusion. Creation of written language was one of the most important factors for thrilling development of humanity. And as history shows, tribes or countries with written language always were a step forward in comparison to their verbal-only neighbors. According to UN statistics, written language usually was a next step after increased communicative status of the language. Thus, only developed languages were able to stimulate the society for creation of written language and calligraphy.

But it must be noticed that availability of written language is not a guaranty for language survival after all. Suffices to mention Latin and Ancient Egyptian languages.



Standardization of the language is the upcoming step in language development after creation of written form of it. It means that, after creation of written language developed societies tend to set rules for its application in order to prevent it from mess and unify it as much as possible. Usually, languages with highest level of standardization have high achievements in literature and humanitarian sciences. But specialists still didn’t arrive to a consensus which was the primary factor: whether development of literature led to a high level of language standardization of vice-versa.



Legal status of the language – unlike previous characteristics, this one is completely artificial. Previous points were mostly chaotic and uncontrolled, happening during a long period of time and mostly independent of one single human beings will. Legal status, however, is a conscious, language related decision made in a specific period of time. This point helps to fix usage of the language in a particular territory, so a little helping to protect it from extinction and to keep the cultural heritage gained the language.

There are many different types of legal statuses for languages. Some examples are: State language, Official language, National language, Temporary State language, Official state language, Local language, Autonomous republic language and etc. The main point is that this status should be clearly determined in official documents of the country (usually in Constitution). State language in Republic of Uzbekistan, for instance, is Uzbek language, while Republic of Singapore declared Malayan, Tamilan, Chinese and English as State languages, mentioning them all in their Constitution.



Confessional Status of the language – to understand this characteristic and its importance we must go a little back into history. Some languages in past were original languages for creation of Religious writings. Such languages are called Prophetical languages. Among them we can mention Arab language, ancient Jewish language, Sanskrit, Ven-yan language and etc. All of them were used to create original Religious writing. Later this writings were mostly translated to different languages for better understanding in other countries. So the Confessional status of the language indicates its ability to fulfill needs of the population in their Religious views, ability to explain and describe points stipulated in Holy writing.



Target Status of the language is the role the language plays in society. There are three different target statuses according to the linguistic classification:

  1. language is used as an supplementary element for learning something. As mentioned before, overwhelming majority of languages in the world are verbal-only local languages, so mostly they are being used in primary education process to teach basics and to prepare students or pupils for the next level, where they will be able to communicate and learn on other, more sophisticated and “writing-possessing” language (usually next level is conducted on official language)

  2. language is used as basic language of education. In some countries there are several basic languages, and sometimes one language is used for primary and secondary education and another (usually with a higher communicative rank) is used for higher and professional education; in this case first language is endangered.

  3. language is a subject of study. In this point it is important to specify where the language is being taught (in a country were that language is native, or in a foreign country) and what is the purpose of such learning. Here are some possible specifications:

    1. language is native for the students and as well it is the language of teaching. In this case the target is to advance the knowledge.

    2. language is native for the students, but the language of teaching is different (usually with a higher communicative rank). In this case target is to advance native language, while not the language of education.

    3. language is not native for students and teachers, but is spoken within the society dwelled. Target is to ease inter-social communication.

    4. language is taught as a “foreign language” for general purposes.

    5. language is a “Classical language” for specific territory. Usually it’s regional language or historically accepted form of it within some area.

    6. language is taught as a special subject. This usually concerns to special institutions targeted to train professional teachers, interpreters, linguists and etc. One of the examples is the University of World languages in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

So from all abovementioned we can conclude that life of a language depends on wide variety of social ranks, which are complex and deeply interconnected. But we can observe in history that sometimes even languages with strong positions in all mentioned points can get extinct. As happened with Latin language. And the bright side is that sometimes extinct languages can revive and become popular. As happened with Hebrew.

At the conclusion I’d like to note that the problem of language extinction is not a new subject, and linguists all over the world are concerned with it. There is no need to explain that formation of language takes many centuries and during this time language inherits a lot of information about culture, traditions, habits and etc. of the nation it belongs to. This information, in form of language is irreplaceable if the language is lost. Considering that, it was a correct and timely decision to create International Linguistic Congress, which with a support of UN has been acting for decades and helping to save endangered languages.

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