Getting the Final Word: Endangered Languages in the Arab World

At the turn of the century, UNESCO designated February 21 as International Mother Language Day. In addition to celebrating the incredible linguistic diversity in communities around the world communities, this day also reminds us of the need to preserve indigenous languages.
Getting the Final Word Endangered Languages in the Arab World

In November 1999, the general conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established February 21 as annual International Mother Language Day.

In November 1999, the general conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established February 21 as annual International Mother Language Day. In a resolution adopted on May 16, 2007, the UN General Assembly called upon member states “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.” Currently, it is estimated that there are 7,000 living languages worldwide. Over 2,000 of these languages have less than 1,000 speakers according to data from UNESCO.

“Half the population of the world speaks 50 languages and the other half speaks the other 6,950 languages,” Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur, a linguist and director of the SOAS University of London’s World Languages Institute, explained during a TED Talk. However,  UNESCO predicts that “half of all languages in the world will be gone by the end of the century.” In order to preserve the world’s linguistic diversity, it is necessary to understand how a language can become endangered.

From Distinct to Extinct

According to Seyfeddinipur, our global language systems are just as unique and fragile as our biological ecosystems: “We often think that language is different because it is manmade, but it is not. The way that our environment changes dramatically influences the way people live.” To protect the diversity of these systems, UNESCO has developed a classification system to identify how threatened a language is. In this system, there are five main categories:

Vulnerable: This category describes a language that most children speak, but may be restricted only to certain domains, such as the home.

Definitely endangered: This refers to a language that children no longer learn as a “mother tongue” at home.

Severely endangered: This describes a language that is spoken by grandparents and older generations. It also suggests that new generations of parents may understand the language, but do not speak it among themselves or to their children.

Critically endangered: This category applies to a language whose “youngest” speakers are grandparents who are not fluent in the language and speak it only infrequently.

Extinct: This refers to a language that no longer has any speakers.  

There are many reasons that languages change, evolve, or disappear. “Globalization, urbanization, [and] climate change [make] people give up their languages, give up their traditional ways of life. They move to cities, and they ensure that their children speak the language [that] will give them a better future, that will give them economic and social mobility,” according to Seyfeddinipur.

Out of the 22 countries that make up the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), 14 countries have one or more endangered languages, according to the UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.

Out of the 22 countries that make up the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), 14 countries have one or more endangered languages, according to the UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. These countries include: Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Palestine, and Lebanon. UNESCO estimates that there are more than 100 languages that are in danger, with the highest concentration in Sudan.

One Country, Many Identities

Sudan’s linguistic diversity can be attributed to the mixture of African and Arab populations that make up the country. Aja, Bai, Baygo, Belanda Bor, Beli, and Berti are just some of the 64 endangered languages in Sudan. Sudan’s 2005 constitution recognizes Arabic “as a major language at the national level and English shall be the official working languages of the national government and the languages of instruction for higher education.”

In addition to Arabic and English, the Sudanese constitution also recognizes “[a]ll indigenous languages of the Sudan” as national languages that should “be respected, developed, and promoted.” There are an estimated 114 indigenous languages in the country and over 500 accents. The languages spoken in Sudan can be divided into four main categories: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Nubian, and Niger-Congo.

There are three main Afro-Asiatic languages in Sudan. The dominant language is Arabic, which has different dialects that vary by region. The Beja language, also known as Bedawi, is spoken by a community of roughly 2 million speakers who live on the Red Sea’s western coast. Hausa, spoken by communities in Khartoum, Kordofan, and along the Blue Nile River, has roughly 80,000 speakers.

The Nilo-Saharan family of languages, spoken in the southern parts of Sudan, has the largest number of native languages.  

The Nilo-Saharan family of languages, spoken in the southern parts of Sudan, has the largest number of native languages. The Nuer language is spoken by 1.4 million Nuer people, who live in the savannas and marshes of the Nile valley in southern Sudan. Other Nilo-Saharan languages include the Fur language and the Masalit language spoken by the Fur and Masalit people of Darfur.

The Nubian languages are spoken by Nubian communities in different areas of Sudan. The Nobiin language, which is commonly used in northern Sudan, has the most speakers in this language group. Other Nubian languages include the Midob language—spoken by the Midob community who are located in North Darfur, Jezirat Aba, and Khartoum—and the Hill Nubian languages, which are spoken by 63,000 in the northern Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan.  

The Niger-Congo language group uses languages from neighboring countries, such as the Zande language, which is spoken in western Sudan, but also in Congo and the Central African Republic. The Kordofanian language group, spoken in the Nuba Mountains of the Kordofan region of Sudan, is made up of five languages including: Kadu, Rashad, Talodi-Heiban, Katla, and Lafofa. The Fulani language is also spoken in Kordofan, northern areas of Sudan, and the Blue Nile region.  

Sudan’s rich linguistic landscape makes it unique in the Arab world. However, UNESCO currently classifies more than half of the country’s indigenous languages as endangered. If more is not done to preserve these languages there is the possibility that Sudan will lose a great deal of its linguistic diversity.

The Future of Language

At the turn of the millennium, about a quarter of the world’s population could communicate in English to some degree, according to NowThis World. Today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population are native speakers of only one of twelve languages including Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi-Urdu, English, Arabic, Spanish, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, German, Japanese, French, and Italian.

New hybrid languages are also likely to emerge in the future. However, in the meantime, it appears that two languages will predominate: Chinese (Mandarin) and Hindi. Most language predictions are based on population growth, putting China and India, with current populations of over 1.3 billion each, in the lead. Yet, even though population growth is frequently used to determine the prominence of a certain language, it is not always the most accurate measure.

Some believe that English as a second language will dominate the world in the future. In 2017, it was estimated that 73 percent of China’s population, or roughly 1.38 billion people, spoke Mandarin, while 372 million people spoke English globally. But in 45 countries, more than 50 percent of the population speaks English, whereas Mandarin is limited to mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, and diasporic Chinese communities globally.      

The latest data from Statista estimates the number of Arabic speakers to be 315 million. In a region with a population of more than 400 million people, this means that there are 85 million people in the Arab world who speak a mother tongue other than, or in addition to, Arabic. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the 22 countries that make up the MENA region to preserve the social, cultural, and linguistic pluralism represented by these other languages.

Language: A Doorway or a Dead End?

Language plays a central role in shaping human beings’ identities and ability to express their opinions. Therefore, as our realities change, so do our languages. “Languages change all the time. [The fact] that we are able to adapt to our changing social environment at all times by changing language, by introducing new words, new lexical items, new phrases, new expressions, and [borrowing] from other languages . . . is actually a part of the beauty of this living medium,” says Seyfeddinipur.

Not only is language a core part of human communication, it also plays a vital role in shaping our social, economic, and political institutions.

Not only is language a core part of human communication, it also plays a vital role in shaping our social, economic, and political institutions. Consequently, those who speak the languages associated with power have more access and influence over these institutions, while those who do not often remain marginalized. This leaves large segments of societies worldwide with limited or no access to the resources and skills that they need to progress.

Every year, International Mother Language Day gives us a unique opportunity to celebrate linguistic diversity in the Arab world and beyond. It also recognizes the need to preserve global linguistic diversity through education and scholarship, while simultaneously empowering the speakers of these languages to access the platforms that they need to become full-fledged members of society.