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How Many Written Languages in the World?
Trond Trosterud
9 Mar 1999 on Endangered Language List

Some months ago I asked for information on written languages. I waited for more info, and thus never made it to reposting the result. ...

Taking the SIL database as a basis, we find the following results:

Published Bibles:	320 languages
 " New Testaments:	801    "
 " Bible portions:	919    "
TOTAL           :	2040    "
Source: Barbara F. Grimes, Ethnologue Editor
[data from 1996]
(I hereby thank her for the input, as well as the other pointers I got during the process).

If we assume that the worlds missionaries have published their Gospel according to Luke every time they have had the opportunity to do so (that is, every time a written language has been available), the written language coverage is approximately one third (2000 out of 6000 languages (6000 is a conservative estimate)). It may exist some languages with a written language but without any published Bible portions, but on the other hand side, the number of languages in the world are probably 6500 rather than 6000 (cf. the Ethnologue list quoted below), and one third may thus be a good guess.

SIL also has a list of languages (6500 languages) ordered by number of speakers:

"First Language Speakers of the World's Languages" "Estimates from the Ethnologue data base, February 1995" (available from

The language number 2000 (Vaiphei in India) has 16000 speakers (the first language with 1600 speakers or less is number 1978 in the rank), thus if we assume that the Bible fragments are published for the largest languages first, as a rule, only languages with more than 16000 speakers have a written language (or, to weaken the claim: only languages with more than 16000 speakers have a literacy counting at least a Bible fragment)

If we go another one third down the list, and divide the worlds languages into 3 groups, we find that language number 4000 (beginning the last one third of the total sample), ISTRIOT of Croatia (?this was unknown to me), has 1000 speakers (the first 3948 languages on the list have more than 1000 speakers). (Akha, by the way, is number 487 on the list, thus established written languages for Akha is what we would expect.)

Here in Scandinavia, we have 6 S·mi written languages (due to linguistic differences, the orthographies do not compete with each other, but represent different languages). Of these, 4 have appr. 2-500 speakers. Comparing this to the world-wide situation, it is a perfectly reasonable demand that the medial one third of the languages (ranging from 1000 to 16000 speakers) also get a written language (provided they are, or want to be, integrated in the modernized world; if they are not and do not want to be, they may be better off without a written language).

There is thus lot of work to do.

As a rule of thumb: The medium one third needs a written language, whereas the final one third needs to be documented (and a written language, wherever appropriate).

This certainly does not imply that the languages of the upper third are "safe", "do not need support", or whatever. written languages in a modernized world need more than some Bible fragments. They need primers, dictionaries, technical literature, belletristics, popular fiction, language technology tools, etc, etc.

As an attempt at making a classification, I tentatively divide the languages of the world into 7 different groups, as follows.

Group 1: English

Group 2: Large and/or commercially interesting official languages. As an illustration, consider what languages Nisus Software offers spell checkers for (I also tried to find out what languages Monica Lewinsky’s book was translated into...):
German (Switzerland)
Norwegian (Bokmål)
Norwegian (Nynorsk)

To this list we must of course add the large non-Latin-based languages: Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean. I do not know to what extent the other large Asian languages really represent a commercially interesting market. Just pointing at demographic statistics is misleading here, since capitalism does not ask for users, but for buyers, and what these buyers are able to pay. Thus, India’s English-dominated language situation may remove the market potential of really large languages (since the rich buyers will systematically use the status language).

Group 3: Languages which are the official languages of independent states. In a count I found the sum of groups 1+2+3 to be 87 (Source: UN member state list, + information on official language in my encyclopedia "Store Norske Leksikon". The encyclopedia is from the 80s, so I added the new countries of Europe and the former SU. The total number of official languages of independent countries may be quoted as "slightly less than 100" (as compared to appr. 200 countries, several countries are officially bi- or multilingual, but this is outweighed by the fact that the numerous former colonies of Britain, France, Portugal and Spain have the colonial languages as official languages).

Group 4: Non-official languages with reasonably developed literacy (i.e. with basic text books, primers, at least bilingual dictionaries, more than a shelf meter of literature, fiction and non-fiction computer solution working, at least locally on each PC

Group 5: Non-official languages with marginally developed literacy (i.e. written language + some textbooks for schools, only a few titles, typically for children

Group 6: Non-official languages with literacy as part of outsiders’ work (i.e. missionary or linguist work only): Written language, some gospels, etc.

Group 7: The rest.
(well, of course we should subdivide:
7a: linguistically relevant information exists,
7b: no information, reference grammars, word lists, anything, etc. available. The language in question is only known via its name (often even by the name given by neighbouring people).
This distinction is crucial to linguistics, but from a written language point of view they both lack written language altogether).

The surprising fact emerging from this survey is that group 7 may consist of as much as 2/3 of the world’s languages, in any case, groups 1-4 certainly cover less than the 2000 Bible (fragment) languages quoted above.

He added to the Editor:
As you see, the study really needs a follow-up (looking for written languages without Bible fragments, or: is the number really as small as 2000?), and it would also be interesting to investigate the other end, i.e. my groups 3-4-5 wrt. to language technology tools. This last thing is really important, since I suspect that future language legislation, bilingual rights, etc. will rest heavily on MT, automatic information retrieval, etc. But as far as I am concerned you may publish my note as it is, and then we may hope that someone picks up the thread. Trond. Graecanic Minority in Italy

Date: Sat, 19 Dec 1998
From: Francesco Penza

Graecanic (Italiot Greek, Griko) is an endangered language because the last speakers (15000-20000) are all over-50. This is a language quite different from Modern Greek, influenced by the Romance dialects with also some trace of Ancient Greek. Born according to some scholars in VII-IX century AC, according to others descended also from the Greek spoken in the ancient Magna Graecia.

Interest in the native language is increasing now, but formerly was considered a "language for peasants". However, all scholars consider the language destined to die by about 2020: the new generations are too (psychologically) distant from the last old speakers and there is no grammar or dictionary that is really complete and accurate. Some Graecanic scholars who practised the language have realized good compositions and work, but have not taught the grammar to the new generation.

I'm working on a new dictionary for the Graecanic of Salento and I'm collecting information to improve the last grammars, but I'm not a linguist and I don't live in Salento, so the work may be too difficult for me.

Unfortunately I still haven’t found any other who can be interested on the project and have more competence in linguistics. Moreover I work a lot in internet, but it is very difficult to find old Graecanics online!

Best regards,

Francesco Penza

Sa' llumera ene glossama, pu mas termane ti zzoi'
Join the first graecanic mailing-list:

Scots Gaelic on TV: Na h-Eilthirich

Wed, 3 Feb 1999
Teachers of Celtic Languages
Ian MacDonald

A h-uile duine,
I posted a message recently about the BBC's forthcoming Gaelic-language series, "Na h-Eilthirich", a documentary series looking into how and why Gaels and Scots have found themselves scattered throughout the globe. (BBC 2 Scotland, Thursdays, 6.45 pm, with English subtitles.)

There is a website giving more information about the series, including synopses of each of the eight programmes. The URL is:

(This is the English language version of the web page -- the Gaelic language version can be reached by clicking the "Gaelic" button at the bottom of the page. Some good practice for you!)

Having received some private e-mail about this series, I have been enquiring whether it might be possible to obtain this, or any other of the BBC's Gaelic programmes, commercially.

Apparently, there are no plans at present to release the series on video, but if enough people watch it and/or make enquiries to the BBC, it could be made available. Videos usually cost between 9 and 15 pounds (roughly $15 to $25), and are sometimes available in NTSC format.

If you feel you might want to make an enquiry, the address is:
Enquiries, BBC Scotland, Queen Margaret Drive
Glasgow G12 8DG, Scotland
Or e-mail:

The BBC sells quite a lot of videos. It seems that about 30% of BBC programmes are actually sold on video. But, as far as I can tell, *not one single* Gaelic-language programme has been released.

I intend to write to the Head of Broadcasting at BBC Scotland (a Gaelic speaker, apparently) to suggest releasing some Gaelic language programmes, pointing out that Gaels and Gaelic learners overseas have at present no access to Gaelic language programming from any source (as far as I know).

(The BBC's Gaelic broadcasts are generally very good. There are children's programmes, documentaries, cultural programmes, a young people's magazine, current affairs, and occasionally drama.)

I would be interested to find out how much demand there is for these programmes among learners and native Gaels living outside of Scotland. The main point is: how many people would actually want to *buy* these videos (direct from the BBC) if they were available. If you think you might, perhaps you could send me a short e-mail to: ian(at) (no commitment involved, I just want to find out whether it is worth pursuing this matter further). I will let you know how much interest there is with a posting to the lists. ...

Mise le meas, Iain.

Iain MacDhomhnaill
(Dùn Éideann, Alba) (Edinburgh, Scotland).

Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights: Identity vs Intelligibility, Communities vs Individuals (IATEFL Newsletter, December 1998).

It is interesting to consider the view towards language endangerment and language rights taken by those whose career is to provide access to majority languages. This was very much to the fore in a conference organized by liaison IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) in Edinburgh in the last week of March 1999. Remants of the dicussion (including the FEL President’s question to the delegates in glorious RealAudio) can be found at a BBC web-page:

As a prelude to this, in a paper with this title, Catherine Walter, who serves as between liaison IATEFL and FIPLV (Fédération Internationale des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes) discussed the relation between individuals’ access to languages of communication and the general assertion of linguistic rights.

She focused primarily on the PEN Club’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, and the current efforts to persuade UNESCO to adopt it.



She was concerned to point out that “language does not always imply identity. People also use language to achieve intelligibility in a wider community than their own ethnic, regional or national one... a very large percentage of the members of IATEFL are teaching English to learners whose aim in learning English is to achieve international intelligibility.”

She noted that part of the FIPLV statement of Fundamental Principles for a Universal Declaration on Language Rights, formulated in Pecs (Hungary) in 1991, set forth the rights of every individual to learn and be taught up to three languages: "- the language with which s/he and her/his family most readily identify; - the official language(s) of the State, nation or region in which s/he is domiciled; - at least one further language in order to extend his/her social, cultural, educational and intellectual horizons, and to enhance international horizons, and to enhance international understanding."

She emphasised that this Declaration sees identity and intelligibility in a complementary relationship: it is a mistake to see the teaching of a language of international intelligibility, like English, as a threat to community or national languages

Unfortunately, the Pecs Declaration was not taken into account in the first drafts of The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, and as a result the current draft of the Universal Declaration is in the opinion of FIPLV and of the IATEFL Executive Committee seriously flawed, although FIPLV President Michel Candelier did not refuse to sign the current draft, stipulating that FIPLV sees this draft as "an important stage" in the development of a definitive Declaration.

The problems identified :
· little account is taken of the language rights of the individual. so that the right of individuals to learn languages that give them international intelligibility gets only an oblique mention;

· "language groups" (immigrants, refugees, deported persons and members of diasporas) in the draft do not have the same rights as "language communities", viewed as being historically established in a territory, or living nomadically on it;

· no endorsement is given to the situation in countries where a language (sometimes an ex-colonial language like English or French) is used as the language of choice for official transactions, to avoid giving any one of many historically established languages priorities over the others.

She therefore urges those who want improve this document to make their voices heard:

by finding out more about the proposed Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights from the website:
or by post:

Conseil Scientifique d'Accompagnement de la DUDL
Rocafort, 242 bis, SP-08029 Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain

and by writing to their country's National Commission of UNESCO, or National UNESCO
Delegation, available at the UNESCO website:
or from
Division of National Commissions, UNESCO, 7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP France

Evidently the access that Catherine Walter recommends to IATEFL members is available to all of us. It is difficult to get too worked up about a failure of UNESCO to endorse individuals’ freedom to study a lingua franca of choice, or to states’ prerogative to give official status to none of their indigenous languages. - Editor.

Tulsa Committee for the U. N. Decade of Indigenous Peoples: Awards to Elders for Language Transmission - Richard A. Grounds, University of Tulsa

Date: Thu, 25 Mar 1999
On the 9th of December 1994 the General Assembly of the United Nations declared the Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004) as part of an effort to bring international attention to the plight of an estimated 300 million indigenous community members in more than 70 countries.

On February 27th here in Tulsa the local committee for the U. N. Decade of Indigenous Peoples again held our annual celebration dinner. The work of younger language learners was recognized this year as part of a continuation of the previous year's awards.

During last year's event we held a workshop with storytelling in the local Native languages and we recognized the work of four elders in passing forward their language. We gave framed awards written entirely in the language of each recipient: Leonard Thompson in Lenape (Delaware), Lottie Pratt in Osage, Maggie Marsey in Yuchi, and Evans Ray Satepauhoodle in Kiowa. When I received my Ph.D. to recognize the specialized knowledge that I had acquired the text was written in Latin--which I had never studied and could not read. The Committee hoped to reverse--at least symbolically--the centuries-old pattern of universalizing European languages as the privileged languages of the educated within a colonial structure. Instead we sought to elevate particular indigenous languages as the domain of gifted and knowledgable persons within local communities. Each award was signed by a representative of the Native nation, a leader of the Decade Committee under Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries, and Julian Burger of Geneva, Switzerland with the United Nations Center for Human Rights.

At the celebration for this year we gave recognition awards to two younger community members for their successes in learning their language of heritage as a second language. Daryl Baldwin, member of the Miami Nation of Indiana, was recognized for his reclamation work in the Miami language. The letter of nomination from the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Language & Culture Preservation Committee was quite moving: "It is important for you to know that the Miami People have no fluent speakers. The last fluent speaker died in the late 1950's. We have extensive written records of our language but the language has been dormant for over 40 years. It was not until Daryl began working with the language with intent of "speaking" that serious work began." Mr. Baldwin was cited for his extensive work with the communities in Indiana and Oklahoma in preparing teaching materials and initiating an annual summer language camp. He studied linguistics in a Master's program at the University of Montana specifically for purposes of applying his acquired skills to the Miami language. He has worked to reconstruct the language from old tapes and through comparison with related languages. For many attendees the most memorable part of the evening was Mr. Baldwin's playing of an audio tape of his two pre-adolescent daughters speaking freely in the language. It is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Baldwin had to assist with the translation of his own award certificate into the Miami language.

The other recognition went to Richard Codopony, Jr. for his work as a community scholar and successful student of the Comanche language. The current community language work among Comanches was summarized by Ronald Red Elk, chairman of the Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee, which has been active in kindergarten age programming and in Master/Apprentice efforts. Carney Saupitty, who translated the award into Comanche, addressed the gathering in Comanche language and spoke on behalf of Mr. Codopony with whom he has worked in the Master/Apprentice program. Mr. Codopony's efforts in learning the language was extolled as a hopeful example of the possibilities for success in acquiring facility in the traditional language. In a previous videotaped interview for the Intertribal Wordpath Society Mr. Codopony spoke of how the process of learning the language has greatly influenced his art work rendering a more hopeful dimension and new depth to his paintings.

The work of these younger community members is inspiring and offers promise for the 27 endangered indigenous languages here in Oklahoma. According to estimates from the Intertribal Wordpath Society, perhaps 1/3 of the previously spoken languages are now no longer heard in Oklahoma. Even the largest language communities, such as the Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw find themselves with very few speakers below the age of 60. For almost all of the smaller communities (with the notable exception of Kickapoo), the situation is even more critical. There are about 30 speakers of Ponca and Caddo. Less than 10 fluent speakers of Lenape (Delaware), Pawnee, Wichita, Iowa, and Sauk languages. The Yuchi language has perhaps five fully fluent speakers. The awards were offered in the light of these dire circumstances for the purpose of bringing encouragement and visibility to the language work that is being carried out here in Oklahoma by a scattered group of fluent elders, parents, children, and language activists with some significant support from linguistics scholars. Our communities are in great need of hope in their struggles to pass forward their languages to future generations.

At the beginning of the U.N.'s International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, Ingrid Washinawatok--who was the tragic victim of political murder earlier this month during her work with the U'wa people of Colombia--spoke as the first chairperson for the Decade, calling for the voices of indigenous peoples to be heard: "We must unlock the silence of our people. Unlock the silence and let us speak to the world."

Richard A. Grounds
Dept. of Anthropology
University of Tulsa
Tulsa, OK 74104 USA
+1-918-631-3759 (of.)
+1-918-631-2540 (fax)

History of the Welsh Language Society

Date: Sat, 3 Apr 1999 10:43:53 -0500 (EST)
From: Tom McClive
This appeared on the Endangered Languages List.

Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) is run out of a very small office in Aberystwyth, Wales. The society has four full-time employees and is supported by donations, membership fees, and fundraising. There are around 2,000 dues-paying members in local branches, called cells, around Wales.

Its roots go back to one instance in 1936, when three men, Saunders Lewis, a literary critic and university professor, D.J. Williams, an author on Welsh literature, and Lewis Valentine, the first president of the Welsh political party Plaid Cymru, surrendered and were arrested for burning down Royal Air Force buildings in Penyberth, Caernarfonshire, a Welsh-speaking district. While the initial public reaction was horror towards this act of terrorism, they managed to focus attention on the legal status of Welsh by insisting that the trial be in Welsh, and that the jurors be Welsh-speaking. They also ridiculed the British military, who seemed unable to understand why people did not want a bombing range in the center of a Welsh-speaking peninsula.

Fast-forward to 1962, when Saunders Lewis (one of the three men above) gave a famous speech entitled 'Tynged yr Iaith' (The Fate of the Language). In his speech, he went over the history of language oppression and lamented that the Welsh, now and historically, have done little to defend their language. He criticized both the English and the Welsh, for their actions and inaction, while declaring that it is not too late to save Welsh but that "It will be nothing less than a revolution to restore the Welsh language in Wales today. Success is only possible through revolutionary methods."

After this inspiration, the Society was formed that year at the summer institute of the Welsh nationalist political party Plaid Cymru. It was composed mostly of university students, most of them initially non-violent but very active in preserving the language. It was one of the first groups that was formed to be purely dedicated to civil disobedience. Their first activities were organizing various protests or any other act that would secure a summons from the police so that they could demand that the process be done in Welsh.

The Society next turned to other institutions run by the state, making post office forms their next target. They have since worked on such issues as providing court hearings in Welsh, providing road signs in Welsh, and the passage of Welsh language acts in Parliament. They also were involved in the struggle to obtain a license for a Welsh-medium television station, a goal that was finally realized only through activism. Recently that have targeted education, demanding a democratically elected education council for Wales, and language communities, proposing a property act that would help Welsh-speaking communities stay that way, despite the rising property costs due to English immigration.

Thus, the Society was formed for the sole purpose of activism, but has been slowly moving into the realm of legislation. They are involved at governmental and community levels.

They publish a periodical entitled Y Tafod Trydanaidd (The Dragon's Tongue). It used to be on-line, at

but the university at Aberystwyth is revamping it's web server lately, and the site is (temporarily?) down.

Tom McClive
State University of New York at Buffalo