Yesterday was the European Day of Languages, an annual event organised by the Council of Europe, a human rights organisation founded in 1949 that boasts 47 member states.

Besides celebrating linguistic diversity and language learning, one of the objectives of the European Day of Languages is to promote “the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe, which must be preserved and fostered.”

Official graphic for European Day of Languages

And this objective might be the most important of all right now since a large number of European languages face the risk of being wiped off the linguistic map forever, with some languages spoken by as few as half a dozen people.

Here we take a look at the six most endangered languages on the European continent right now and what we can all do to help stop not only their demise but that of all languages on the critical list.

6 languages facing extinction

Livonian (Latvia) – A Finno-Ugric language closely related to Estonian, Livonian lost its last native speaker in 2013 and is now spoken as a second language by around 30-40 people in Latvia. The survival of the Livonian language now depends on young Livonians who learned it in their childhood from elderly relatives, although The language is taught in universities in Latvia, Estonia and Finland.

Karaim (Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine) - Karaim is a Hebrew-influenced Turkic language traditionally spoken by some Crimean Karaites, a Jewish people whose origins are uncertain, although some believe they are descendants of Jews who left Israel around 720 BCE. As few as 80 native Karaim speakers remain, most of whom live in the Lithuanian town of Trakai. Karaim is a recognised minority language in Poland and Ukraine.

Sami languages – A number of the languages of the Sami people – traditionally reindeer-herding nomads or fishermen whose habitat stretches from Norway to North-West Russia – are under severe threat. There are several Sami Languages but those most endangered are: Pite Sami (Sweden and Norway), Ume Sami (Sweden) and Ter Sami (Russia).

Sami people in traditional garb

Pite Sami is spoken by 20-50 people and Ume Sami is spoken by around ten. Sadly, Ter Sami appears to be condemned, with only two speakers recorded in 2010.

Parts of the Sami language area form a dialect continuum in which the neighbouring languages may be mutually intelligible to a fair degree, but two more widely separated groups are unlikely to understand each other.

Corflot Italkian (aka Judeo Italian) - This is an endangered Jewish language, with only about 200 speakers in Italy and 250 total speakers in total. The language is considered an Italian dialect and has some mutual intelligibility.

Some words feature Italian prefixes and suffixes which are added to Hebrew words, while some have roots in the ancient language of Aramaic. In contrast Judeo-Spanish is much less endangered with as many as 400,00- speakers worldwide.

Votic (Russia) - Votic is now spoken in just two villages in the Leningrad Oblast in Northwestern Russia, and is close to extinction. In 2005 The Economist magazine wrote that there are only approximately 20 speakers left. Votic belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic languages and has similarities with Estonian, which is considered its closest relative.

For much of the 20th century it was stigmatised as a language of "uneducated villagers", and school children were encouraged to speak Russian as a first language instead, something from which it has never really recovered.

Why minority languages are important

The extinction of these languages would be a huge loss not only to the people they belong to but to European cultural identity in general.

It would also mean losing historical links and clues to the world we live in that have been developed over millennia.

Increasingly we are seeing languages struggle to survive — around half of the world’s 7,000 languages are at risk of dying in the next century.

UNESCO says, “Every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features.

“The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.”


What can be done to preserve endangered languages?

Social media can be used to raise awareness about the issues of language extinction and language preservation while the internet itself can be used to translate, store and provide information and access to languages.

Awareness days like the European Day of Languages are also useful in bringing to attention languages people might otherwise never hear about.

The printed written word – from books to pamphlets to signs - is also a huge help. Many of the languages we’re losing have not left written or recorded evidence behind. Indeed, many extinct languages were only spoken, not written.

We can do our bit by simply being aware of endangered languages and respecting them when they are spoken around us. Maybe even learn a phrase or two yourself. Of course, the people who are best positioned to preserve a language are the young people who speak them. And whether or not they are willing to make the sacrifice and effort to pass on the linguistic baton to the next generation remains to be seen.