The Sami languages and the UNESCO’s Atlas of Endangered Languages

The UNESCO Red Book of endangered languages, a list of the world’s endangered languages, has now been updated into an interactive atlas, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

The Atlas places 10 Sámi languages on a 5-level scale of endangerment, from vulnerable to extinct. Akkala Sámi, originally spoken in the Kola Peninsula is listed as “extinct”. Pite, Ume and Ter Sámi are “critically endangered”, which means according to UNESCO’s criteria that the youngest speakers are grandparents and older who speak the language partially and infrequently. South, Lule, Skolt, Inari and Kildin Sámi are estimated “severely endangered”, i.e. they are spoken by grandparents and older generations; the parent generation may understand the language but do not speak it to children or among themselves. The most spoken Sámi language, North Sámi, is estimated by the UNESCO as “definitely endangered”, the second lowest level of endangerment characterised by the fact that children no longer learn the language as mother tongue at home.

Languages can be browsed by name, number of speakers, degree of vitality or geographically.The UNESCO emphasizes that the Atlas is to be further developed with additional data. The classification is based on the work of linguists, and not on national legislation. In the case of Sweden for instance, the official national minority language Meänkieli does not appear in the Atlas. The choices, selections and data behind a database such as the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger are often affected by various forces and limited by diverse challenges. As I mentioned in a previous post, the elaboration of databases must be understood and interpreted in their political, economical and social context.


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