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Endangered Languages: Some Concerns

A recent UNESCO report indicates that India has the largest number of endangered languages in the world. A matter of concern, besides the absolute numbers, is the distribution of these endangered languages across number of speakers. The languages under threat include both scheduled, non-scheduled as well as official languages of some of the states. Policies for protecting and promoting the entire range of endangered languages are needed if the linguistic diversity of India is to be preserved.


Endangered Languages: Some Concerns

Papia Sengupta

A recent UNESCO report indicates that India has the largest number of endangered languages in the world. A matter of concern, besides the absolute numbers, is the distribution of these endangered languages across number of speakers. The languages under threat include both scheduled, non-scheduled as well as official languages of some of the states. Policies for protecting and promoting the entire range of endangered languages are needed if the linguistic diversity of India is to be preserved.

I am thankful to T Ravi Kumar for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper. The usual disclaimer applies.

Papia Sengupta (papiasengupta@yahoo.com) is at the Department of Political Science, Kirorimal College, University of Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

august 8, 2009

domains and media and materials for language education and literacy. Three more factors were added later: governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, community members’ attitudes towards their own language and type and quality of documentation (UNESCO 2009).

The Atlas provides fairly detailed information on the status of endangered languages in 155 countries. Though India has the largest number of endangered languages (196), the US reports the largest number of languages (53) that have become extinct from the 1950s (Table 1). The latter also has the largest number (71) of languages that are critically endangered.

Need for Linguistic Diversity

Language is critical to such basic mental processes such as thinking, understanding and even dreaming. Arguments for preserving linguistic diversity in terms of protecting and promoting languages and providing linguistic rights can be classified into three broad streams, viz, identitybased, justice-based and diversity-based arguments.

Identity-Based: Language is not simply a tool for communication but is a central and defining feature of identity as all human thoughts are conceptualised through a language and all human values are pronounced and perceived through it. It follows that since language is a significant factor in building one’s identity, it must be preserved. People identify with the (local) community of speakers of their language, recognise one another as members of the same group on the basis of language, and have a more or less settled desire that the group should survive and flourish into

Table 1: Countries with the Most Endangered Languages

languages in 2003. This Country Degree of Vitality Unsafe Definitely Severely Critically Extinct1 Total

group identified six

Endangered Endangered Endangered Endangered

factors to develop a lan-

India 84 62 6 35 9 196

guage vitality and en-

US 11 25 32 71 53 192


Brazil 97 17 19 45 12 190 i e, intergenerational Indonesia 56 30 19 32 10 147

language transmission, China 41 49 22 23 9 144

absolute number of Mexico 52 38 33 21 -144

speakers, proportion of Russian Federation 21 47 29 20 19 136 Australia 17 13 30 42 6 108

speakers within the

Papua New Guinea 24 15 29 20 10 98

total population, shifts

Canada 24 14 16 32 2 88

in domain of language

(1) From the 1950s. use, response to new Source: Constructed from data in UNESCO (2009).

vol xliv no 32 17

he United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (2009), the third in the series, presents a grave picture of the world’s languages which are extinct or are on the verge of extinction.1 The report (the Atlas from here on) provides updated data on about 2,500 endangered languages, which are classified on the basis of several criteria into five different levels of vitality: unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct. It states that out of the approximately 6,000 existing languages in the world, more than 200 have become extinct during the last three generations, 538 are critically endangered, 502 are severely endangered, 632 are definitely endangered and 607 are unsafe.

The Atlas series is the outcome of an initiative by UNESCO to promote and preserve the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity by safeguarding languages in danger of disappearing. It unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity at its 31st session held in October 2001, which recognised the relationship between biodiversity, cultural diversity, and linguistic diversity. To generate and disseminate knowledge on endangered languages and to foster cooperation between local, regional, national and international organisations, UNESCO set up the ad hoc expert group on endangered


the indefinite future (Patten 2001: 697). Arguing for a policy of language protection, May suggests that language is a constitutive and significant factor in one’s identity formation and provides their speakers with a sense of individual as well as collective forms of linguistic identity (May 2003: 141).

Justice-Based: Language is the most important tool of participation in the polity of the state and not being able to speak in the dominant language (or languages) of Diversity-Based: The last argument for the preservation of linguistic diversity is that this diversity is a value and provides alternatives to choose from different cultures representing different systems of meanings and vision of good life as none can claim to have achieved this in totality (Parekh 1995: 205). Further, it has been argued that each language is itself a manifestation of human creativity which has value independent of its use and also that it is a human accomplishment and end in itself (Reaume 2000: 250).

Table 2: Distribution of Endangered Languages in India as Per Number of Speakers

Degree of Vitality Data Not Zero to 5,000 to 10,000 to 20,000 to 50,000 to Above Total Available 5,000 10,000 20,000 50,000 1,00,000 1,00,000

Extinct – 9 – – – – – 9

Critically endangered 4 22 2 4 2 1 – 35

Severely endangered – 6 – – – – – 6

Definitely endangered 4 19 8 6 6 4 15 62

Unsafe 3 4 5 3 22 12 35 84

Total 11 60 15 13 30 17 50 196

many of these languages being located in the north-east as well as the tribal belts of West Bengal and Orissa and in Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand. These languages are also diverse in terms of the number of speakers, who range from zero to

27.14 lakhs (Gondi) as per the 2001 Census.

Besides the aspect of having the highest number of endangered languages, the distribution of these 196 languages as per the number of speakers is also a matter of concern. In the two categories with the least degree of vitality, that is, “critically” and “severely” endangered, 28 out 37 languages (75%) have less than 5,000 speakers (Table 2). In the same two categories 92% of the languages have less than 20,000 speakers. On the other hand, in the category which has the highest vitality within the endangerment schema, viz, “unsafe”, about 85% of languages have more than

Source: Constructed from data in UNESCO (2009). 20,000 speakers. The Atlas incorporates the “absolute

Table 3: Government Attitude towards Languages

Degree of Support Grade Official Attitudes towards Language number of speakers” as one of nine factors

Equal support 5 All of a country's languages are viewed as assets and protected in constructing its endangerment frame-

Differentiated support 4 Non-dominant languages are explicitly protected primarily
as languages of private domains. The use of the language is
considered prestigious.
Passive assimilation 3 No explicit policy exists for minority languages; the dominant
language prevails in the public domain.
Active assimilation 2 There is no protection for minority languages and the
government encourages assimilation to the dominant language.
Forced assimilation 1 The dominant language is the sole official language, while
non-dominant languages are neither recognised nor protected.
Prohibition 0 Minority languages are prohibited.

Source: UNESCO (2003): Language Vitality and Endangerment, document submitted by UNESCO Ad Hoc. Expert Group on Endangered Languages to the International Expert Meeting on UNESCO. Programme for Safeguarding Endangered Languages, Paris, 10-12 March.

a state can have a serious impact on an in-Linguistic diversity is, therefore, essendividual’s employment, educational and tial to the human heritage with each and recreational opportunities. This leads to every language embodying the unique discrimination and injustice. Supporting cultural and historical wisdom of a people. the policy of “official multilingualism” The loss of any language is an irrevocable as one based on egalitarianism, Patten loss for all humanity. asserts “that the same kinds of valuable institutional spaces and resources that are The Indian Situation made available to speakers of one lan-The Atlas identifies 196 languages that are guage in the community ought to be at the endangered in India, which comprise 84 disposal of speakers of other languages as languages that are “unsafe”, 62 languages well” (Patten 2001: 710). Unequal linguis-that are “definitely endangered” and six and tic endowment in the form of ability to 33 languages that are respectively “severely” speak or not speak the dominant language and “critically” endangered (Table 2). Nine can be the source of interpersonal injus-languages – Ahom, Aimol, Andro, Chairel, tice and every citizen should possess the Kolhreng, Rangkas, Sengmai, Tarao and right to mobilise support for a language Tolcha – have become extinct in India from community or policies that he or she con-the 1950s. Though these endangered lansiders a collective or public good (Laitin guages are spread across the entire country and Reich 2003: 103). there is some degree of concentration, with

august 8, 2009

work because a very small population is especially vulnerable to extinction as a result of both natural disasters such as earthquakes, epidemics or even tsunamis as well as man-made causes such as genocide or war. It is a matter for investigation as to whether the number of speakers in almost all the “critically” and “severely” endangered languages are so low because these languages are well advanced within the trajectory of becoming extinct or whether these languages had a very low number of speakers to begin with. In either case, there is clearly a need for the initiation of remedial policies to protect and promote these endangered languages.

Language Policies in India

The Atlas incorporates government policies towards non-dominant languages as one of the nine factors (titled “Governmental and Institutional Language Attitudes and Policies including Official Status and Use”) in constructing its endangerment framework. The government of a multi-lingual country may have an explicit language policy in which, at one extreme, all languages may receive equal official status or, at the other extreme, one language may be designated as the sole official language of the nation (Table 3).

vol xliv no 32

Economic & Political Weekly


In India, which is linguistically an ex-there exist numerous other languages and tremely diverse country, there emerge dialects in India. several issues in respect of evaluating gov-The Constitution of India enabled the ernment policies towards minority lan-Parliament to create new states and unguages. First, there exists a lack of defini-derlying the major reorganisation of the tional clarity between what constitutes states of India in 1956 (and in subsequent “majority” and “minority” language as years) was the rationale that linguistic Hindi, the official language of the Union minorities be offered adequate opportuof India, is the language of only about nities for political and economic growth two-fifths of the total population of India.2 to ensure that there is no feeling of dis-In 2002, the Supreme Court decided that crimination or neglect. These 28 states of the operative unit in respect of determin-India have the power to legislate their ing who belongs to a minority within the own official languages. meaning of Article 30 will be the state and The 196 endangered languages in India, not the whole of India (Sengupta 2009). as identified by the Atlas, have been classi-

Further, the Eighth Schedule of the fied as between scheduled, non-scheduled Constitution specified 14 major languages and “others” categories in Table 4. Surprisof India and it was deemed necessary in ingly, two languages included in the Eighth the interest of the educational and cultural Schedule – Manipuri and Bodo – are endanadvancement of the country that concerted gered in terms of being “unsafe” (Table 4). measures should be taken for the full de-Two-thirds of non-scheduled languages are velopment of these languages. Eight more also under threat to different degrees with languages were included in the Schedule half of them being “unsafe”, 14 “definitely” in subsequent years – Sindhi (1969), Konk-endangered and two “critically” endanani, Manipuri and Nepali (1993) and Bodo, gered. Of the remaining 128 endangered lan-Dogri, Maithili and Santhali (2003). As per guages that are neither scheduled nor nonthe 2001 Census, these scheduled langua ges scheduled, 33 are “critically” endangered. are utilised by 96.6% of the population of Among the official languages of the India. In addition to the 22 scheduled lan-states of India, seven – Ao, Angami, Chang, guages, there exist about 100 non-scheduled Khasi, Khiemnungan, Konyak and Manilanguages having a minimum of 10,000 puri – are endangered. There is clearly a speakers. Besides these two categories, need for re-evaluation and revamping of

the existing policies in India to-

Table 4: Categorisation of Endangered Languages in India

wards non-dominant languages.

Degree of Vitality Category Total Scheduled Non-Others Endangered Scheduled


Unsafe 2a 50b 32 84

The specific nature of the federal

Definitely endangered – 14c 48 62

framework in India and the forma-

Severely endangered – – 6 6

tion of the states on the linguistic


Critically endangered – 33 35

principle was an attempt to ensure

Extincte – – 9 9

the effective integration of linguis-

Total endangered 2 66 128 196

(a) Bodo and Manipuri. As per the 2001 Census, there are 13.5 lakh Bodo tic minorities into the economic, speakers and 14.7 lakh Manipuri speakers in India.

political, social and cultural main

(b) These languages are Adi (1,98,462), Anal (23,191), Angami (1,32,225),

Ao (2,61,387), Balti (20,053), Bhumij (47,443), Bishnupuriya (77,545),

stream. In fact, the disparate eco-

Chakru (83,560), Chang (62,408), Dimasa (1,11,961), Gondi (27,13,790), Hmar (83,404), Ho (10,42,724), Kabui (94,758), Karbi (4,19,534), Kharia nomic performance of the states (239,608), Khasi (11,28,575), Khezha (40,768), Khiemnungan (37,755), Koda (43,030), Konyak (2,48,109), Korku (5,74,481), Korwa (34,586), Kui over the past 25 years has actually (9,16,222), Ladakhi (1,04,618), Liangmei (34,232), Lotha (1,70,001), Lushai/

resulted in the linguistic “minority”

Mizo (6,74,756), Maram (37,340), Maring (22,326), Mundari (10,61,352), Nissi (2,11,485), Nocte (32,957), Paite (64,100), Phom (1,22,508), Pochury (16,744),

states performing better than the

Rabha (1,64,770), Rengma (61,345), Sangtam (84,273), Savara (2,52,519), Sema (1,03,529), Sherpa (18,342),Tamang (17,494),Tangkhul (1,42,035), “majority” states (Sengupta and Tangsa (40,086),Thado (1,90,595),Tulu (17,22,768),Wancho (49,072), Yimchungre (92,144) and Zemi (34,110). The figures in the parenthesis are

Kumar 2008).

the number of speakers of the language as per the 2001 Census.

The analysis in the preceding

(c) These languages are Deori (27,960), Gangte (14,500), Juang (23,708), Khond (1,18,597), Coorgi (1,66,187), Kinnauri (65,097), Koch (31,119), sections, however, also suggests Kolami (1,21,855), Kom (14,673), Konda (56,262), Lepcha (50,629), Limbu (37,265), Malto (2,24,926) and Miri (5,51,224). The figures in the parenthesis that a large number of the smaller are the number of speakers of the language as per the 2001 Census.

“minority” languages are threat

(d) These languages are Gadaba and Parji which, as per the 2001 Census, were spoken by 26,262 and 51,216 persons, respectively.

ened and these include scheduled

(e) From the 1950s. Source: Constructed from data in UNESCO (2009) and Census of India (2001). and non-scheduled languages as

Economic & Political Weekly

august 8, 2009 vol xliv no 32

well as the official languages of some states. There is a need for immediate initiation of policies for protecting, revitalising and promoting the entire range of endangered languages if the linguistic diversity of India is to be preserved. A coordinated mechanism has to be created which needs to operate at the level of both the centre and states with clearly delineated roles for the two-tiers of government. The state governments also have to show greater initiative in evolving targeted and effective programmes that encourage greater involvement of local governments in each state.


1 UNESCO published the first Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing in 1996. A second, updated English edition of the Atlas was commissioned by UNESCO in 1999 and appeared in 2001, which lists, region by region, some 800 endangered languages.

2 Statement IV, Census of India 2001. Hindi (41.03%) is followed by Bengali (8.11%), Telugu (7.19%), Marathi (6.99%) and Tamil (5.91%).


Laitin, David D and Rob Reich (2003): “A Liberal Demo cratic Approach to Language Justice” in Will Kymlicka and Alan Patten (ed.), Language Rights and Political Theory (Oxford University Press).

May, Stephen (2003): “Misconceiving Minority Language Rights: Implications for Liberal Political Theory” in Will Kymlicka and Alan Patten (ed.), Language Rights and Political Theory (Oxford University Press).

Parekh, Bhikhu (1995): “Cultural Pluralism and the Limits of Diversity” in Gurpreet Mahajan (ed.), Democracy, Difference and Social Justice (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Patten, Alan (2001): “Political Theory and Language Policy”, Political Theory, Vol 29, No 5, October, pp 691-715.

Reaume, Denise (2000): “Official Language Rights: Intrinsic Value and the Protection of Difference”,in Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman (ed.), Citizenship in Diverse Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Sengupta, Papia and T Ravi Kumar (2008): “Linguistic Diversity and Disparate Regional Growth”, Economic & Political Weekly, 16 August, pp 8-10.

Sengupta, Papia (2009): “Linguistic Diversity and Economic Disparity: An Issue for Multiculturalism in India”, International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations, Vol 9, No 1, pp 147-64.

UNESCO (2009): Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (interactive online edition), viewed between April-May (http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/ index.php?pg=00206 and http://www.unesco. org/culture/ich/UNESCO-EndangeredLanguagesStatistics-20090217.xls)

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