New atlas maps out endangered languages

Monday, 21 April 1997

For years the problems of disappearing plant and animal species have been brought to the world's attention, but few people realise that languages throughout the world are also facing extinction.

It's estimated that up to 90% of the world's many and varied languages will disappear within the next 100 years, representing an incredible loss of diversity, culture and identity for peoples right across the globe.

Fighting to prevent such massive losses of language is the University of Adelaide's Foundation Professor of Linguistics, Professor Peter Mühlhäusler.

He is the co-editor of a new international publication, the Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia and the Americas.

The first of its kind in the world, the atlas contains about 300 detailed maps and more than 1600 pages of text, which trace the changes in thousands of languages found throughout the Pacific region, including Australia, Asia and the Americas.

Languages have changed or disappeared over the years for many reasons, such as contact with other races (eg. European settlement). The changes have happened both by accident and through force.

In Australia alone, about 200 out of 250 languages spoken by indigenous peoples have been lost since European settlement two centuries ago. New languages have also developed, such as a form of pidgin English which started in Australia in the 1790s and spread through the Pacific.

Professor Mühlhäusler says the atlas, to be launched today at the University of Adelaide, represents years of research by linguists from around the world. He hopes it will highlight the need to preserve the many languages facing extinction.

"Languages are disappearing at a much faster rate today than they ever did in the past, and if a language dies, hundreds and thousands of years of experience dies with it," he says. "No one really knows what the long-term cost of that will be."

The Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication is published by De Gruyter, Berlin.


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