With only 15 speakers left, the Ainu language is “critically endangered” while seven other languages in Japan are also at risk of disappearing, according to a UNESCO report.
These eight languages in Japan are among about 2,500 around the world that have become or could become extinct, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s report said.
UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger listed eight languages in Japan, such as the Ainu language, as independent tongues under international standards rather than indigenous dialects, an official with Paris-based UNESCO said.In addition to Hokkaido, the Ainu language used to be widely spoken in Russia’s Sakhalin as well as the Chishima island chain off the coast of Hokkaido, including the Northern Territories. But the speakers there have died out.
“Few people speak Ainu in everyday life,” said the Sapporo-based Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture.
The seven other endangered languages in Japan are Yaeyama, Yonaguni, Okinawa, Kunigami, Miyako in Okinawa Prefecture, Amami in Kagoshima Prefecture, and Hachijo in Tokyo. The first six languages are spoken on the Nansei island chain, which stretches from north of Taiwan and south of Kyushu, and Hachijo in Tokyo’s Hachijojima island and nearby islets.
UNESCO described the Yaeyama and Yonaguni languages as “severely endangered,” while the other five were “definitely endangered.”
Osamu Sakiyama, professor emeritus of linguistics at the National Museum of Ethnology, welcomed UNESCO’s approach, saying a dialect should be treated as an independent language if its speakers have a distinct culture.
“Coupled with the myth that Japan is ethnically homogenous, people tend to think that one language is spoken in Japan. But I want people to know there is quite a diversity,” Sakiyama said.
The Atlas of the World Languages in Danger released Thursday is the third. It conducted similar research in 1996 and 2001.
More than 30 linguists covered about 6,000 languages around the world, making the survey one of unprecedented scale.
The 2,500 endangered languages were put into five different categories: unsafe; definitely endangered; severely endangered; critically endangered; and extinct.
The number of “critically endangered” languages stood at 538, including 199 with 10 or fewer speakers. There were 502 “severely endangered” languages, 632 “definitely endangered,” and 607 were deemed “unsafe.”
Many of these languages are spoken in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Melanesia.
Since 1950, 219 languages have become extinct, according to the report. The latest language to disappear is Eyak in Alaska, with the death of the remaining speaker, the report said.
Ryoji Kikuchi, an official with the Hachijo board of education, welcomed UNESCO’s citation as a good opportunity to keep record of the disappearing language.
“We have wanted to do something about the language because the number of people who speak it is decreasing due to the aging of society,” Kikuchi said.
Kikuchi said local officials are considering uploading a recording of the Hachijo language, taped several decades ago, on the town’s website.