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What are endangered languages and how can they be saved? Cambridge academic bids to save ancient Greek dialect

Surviving ancient Greek manuscripts at the Bodleian Library (PA)
Surviving ancient Greek manuscripts at the Bodleian Library (PA)

Linguists fear that the ancient Greek dialect Romeyka, which has only a few thousand speakers, could die out — severing a tie with the ancient world.

Romeyka is spoken in northern Turkey but has more in common with languages used to write the Bible than the modern variety.

But the dialect is not written down and with most speakers growing old, a University of Cambridge academic is bidding to save it.

Ioanna Sitaridou, professor of Spanish and historical linguistics, told the Guardian of her Crowdsourcing Romeyka project to empower a mass effort to try to preserve it.

She said: “There is a very significant diaspora which is separated by religion and national identity [from the communities in Turkey], but still shares so much.”

“What is very important for these [minority] languages and for these speech communities is to keep for themselves a sense of belonging and who they are. Because it connects them to their past, whatever way you see your past.

“When speakers can speak their home languages they feel seen and thus they feel more connected to the rest of society. On the other hand, not speaking the heritage or minority languages creates some form of trauma which … undermines integration.”

Romeyka is considered an endangered language but it is far from being alone on this list.

Welsh is a mandatory language in schools in Wales (PA)
Welsh is a mandatory language in schools in Wales (PA)

What are endangered languages?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) publishes a full list of all languages and has more than 8,000 worldwide. Of these, only 65 are considered safe — including standard English, Mandarin Chinese, and French, to name three.

Unesco has different levels for languages that it considers could be at risk of dying out or not being used any more. These are the different grades of vulnerability:

  • Vulnerable — most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home),

  • Definitely endangered — children no longer learn the language as a 'mother tongue' in the home,

  • Severely endangered — language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves,

  • Critically endangered — the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently,

  • Extinct — there are no speakers left.

More than 40 per cent of the world now speaks one of eight “super” languages.

What are some examples?

Afrikaans is considered a potentially vulnerable language. The southern African tongue has around seven million speakers worldwide but Unesco says that number may decline — although it gave no reason why.

Welsh is also considered potentially vulnerable. However, it has been protected in Wales since 2011 and has half a million speakers — including King Charles. Additionally, Patagonia in Argentina is a Welsh community with 5,000 speakers.

Unesco, however, classifies Gaelic as "definitely endangered" with the last census showing around 50,000 speakers — compared with 289,000 in 1755.

Cantonese is not unlike many Chinese languages on the list and has 70 million speakers. But, with Beijing eager to use language to assert its authority, this could change. Schools are now seeing traditional Cantonese alphabets replaced with standardised Mandarin symbols at the government’s want.

How are endangered languages protected?

Some governments are keen to destroy a language. Cantonese is one example but the British were once keen on getting rid of Welsh.

Governments, however, are more likely to want to preserve a language to keep a country’s history intact. Since 2011, Welsh has been Wales’ official language and mandatory in schools.

Similarly, Hawaii, Iceland and New Zealand are all safeguarding languages — the latter introducing Maori as a core subject in schools.