Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and likely to disappear in this century.
Some endangered languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.
New research, reported yesterday, has identified the five regions of the world where languages are disappearing most rapidly. These "hot spots" are northern Australia, central South America, North America's upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia and an area that includes Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. All are occupied by aboriginal people speaking diverse languages but in decreasing numbers.
The study was based on field research and data analysis supported by the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, which seeks to document, revitalize and maintain languages at risk. The findings are described in the October issue of National Geographic magazine and at languagehotspots.org.
At a teleconference with reporters yesterday, Dr. K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, said more than half of the languages have no written form and are "vulnerable to loss and being forgotten." When they disappear, they leave behind no dictionary, no text, no record of the accumulated knowledge and history of a vanished culture.
Harrison; Dr. Gregory D. S. Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute in Salem, Ore.; and Chris Rainier, a filmmaker with the National Geographic Society, have traveled in recent years to many parts of the world in what they expect to be a long-term series of projects to identify and record endangered languages.
The researchers interview and make recordings of the few remaining speakers of a threatened spoken language and collect basic word lists.
In Australia, nearly all of whose 231 spoken aboriginal tongues are endangered, the researchers came upon such tiny language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke, in the Northern Territory, and the three Yawuru speakers, in Western Australia.
In July, Anderson said, they met the sole living speaker of Amurdag, a language in the Northern Territory that had already been declared extinct: "This is probably one language that cannot be brought back, but at least we made a record of it." Anderson said the Amurdag speaker strained to recall words he had last heard from his late father.
The dominance of English threatens the survival of the 54 indigenous languages of the Northwest Pacific plateau of North America, a region including British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. There remains only one person who speaks Siletz Dee-ni, the last of many languages once spoken on a reservation in Oregon.
Forty American Indian languages are still spoken in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, many of them originally used by indigenous tribes and others introduced by Eastern tribes that were forced to resettle on reservations there, mainly in Oklahoma.