Case Studies

Posted: 10 September 2020

Recording the world's endangered languages

  • Programme:

    Preserving endangered culture

  • Focus area:

    Intangible culture

  • Grantee:

    School of Oriental and African Studies

  • Project:

    Endangered Languages Documentation Programme

  • Grants awarded:

    $38,400,000

  • Years:

    2002–2021

More than half of the languages spoken today may die out by the end of this century. Language is a unique reflection of a community’s knowledge, culture and history, some of which is lost when people give up their ancestral languages. To ensure that at least a record of these languages is preserved, in 2002 we founded the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The Programme gives grants to linguists and community members to document endangered languages worldwide. So far, it has helped record more than 450 near-extinct languages in more than 80 countries. Some of the documented languages have since fallen silent.

Sophie Mu speaking to Mutu He (woman with hat), Mubian Qi and the Zaoluan Pai about their views on languages, March 2015. Photo by Dr Indrajit Ghosh.
Sophie Mu speaking to Mutu He (woman with hat), Mubian Qi and the Zaoluan Pai about their views on languages, March 2015.Photo by Dr Indrajit Ghosh.


Project examples

Great Andamanese

The ELDP supported a project to document Great Andamanese, a critically endangered language of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. It is generally believed to be the last surviving language going back to pre-Neolithic times in South-East Asia, a fast-closing window on a very ancient form of cognition. Present-day Great Andamanese, which has three remaining speakers, is formed from four Great Andamanese languages: Khora, Jeru, Sare and Bo. Since the project started documentation in 2004, three of these, Khora, Sare and Bo, have become extinct. The last speaker of Sare died in 2020.

N|uu

ELDP also supported a project to document N|uu, a highly endangered language spoken by a small number of San, the oldest indigenous population of the Republic of South Africa. As recently as the 1990s, N|uu was believed to be extinct, largely because the few who were still capable of speaking the language hid this to avoid stigma under Apartheid. Soon after the end of Apartheid, it was discovered that N|uu was still spoken by remnants of the original (San) population. However, the number of mother-tongue speakers has dropped from ca. 20 in the late 1990s to five as of 2017, all of whom are at least in their 70s.

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