Globalisation and cultural homogenisation mean that many of the world’s languages are in danger of vanishing. UNESCO has identified 150 European languages which it considers are either vulnerable or endangered. We talk to speakers of these lesser-known languages – from Faroese to Pite Saami.
Who speaks it: spoken in the Faroe islands – an archipelago and autonomously run region of Denmark.
How many people speak it: 66,000, both in the islands and in Denmark.
How to say “Hello”: Góðan dag.
Did you know? Faroese is derived from Old Norse and preserves more characteristics of that language than any other modern tongue except Icelandic.
Durita Dahl Djurhuus, native speaker of Faroese, lives on Faroe Islands:
“I was born in Denmark in 1972. Both my parents are Faroese but they were studying there at the time. A great many Faroese people get their education abroad and, in the 70s, Denmark was by far the most common place.
“Most people around my family were Faroese and my first language is Faroese, but in childcare in Denmark, they did not understand when I spoke it. I knew both Danish and Faroese, but I hadn’t yet learned to distinguish them. One day, one of the educators scolded me for talking Faroese to another girl and told me to talk Danish. Since I didn’t know which was which, I just stopped talking in the institution. Later, they blamed my mom for me not talking and told us to speak Danish at all times. The period I was not talking I spent figuring out the two languages and everything fell into place soon after. Of course, my parents and I couldn’t stop speaking Faroese.
“As a teenager I moved to the Faroe Islands with my family. Even though I had spent every summer and winter on the Islands I realised at this point that my Faroese was awful. It had a horrible Danish accent and many words that were Faroese when my parents were kids were suddenly not so Faroese anymore. I learned a lot from reading Faroese books and at some point I got both languages right, I think, except for the Faroese spelling. Today I speak Faroese all the time; occasionally Danish and English.
“What makes Faroese so unique is that the population speaking it is so small and the language has been isolated for hundreds of years. Faroese is very close to the Old Norse, so some ancient sounds are preserved in the language just as others are in Icelandic. Every town has its own dialect. The area is incredibly small, only 1,400 km squared, and you really see a big difference when you look at the north and the south.
“Everybody born and living on the Islands speaks Faroese as a first language. It’s not falling out of use, but the small village dialects are definitely dying out, which is probably due to small villages becoming depopulated. A lot of initiatives are being done to prevent this, but it is a tough battle. Young people have also stopped talking the dialect. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s not cool enough.”
Who speaks it: Karaim is spoken by the Karaim people in Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.
How many people speak it: Karaim is an endangered language with just 60 people known to speak it.
How to say “Hello”: Kiuń jachšy
Did you know? Karaim is spoken mainly in the town of Trakai by a small community living there since the 14th century.
Éva Csató Johanson, professor in Turkic languages at Uppsala University, Sweden:
“In 1992, when I started a documentation project, many scholars regarded Karaim to be an extinct language. Fortunately, I found that there were still a handful of people living mainly in Lithuania who had good competence in this Turkic language. I learned Karaim from these speakers so that I consistently spoke only Karaim with them. My insistence on speaking only Karaim inspired even rusty speakers to use the language more and more.
“Karaim is one of the European Turkic languages. It is a genuine Turkic vernacular and at the same time one that has been accommodated to the communicative needs of its multilingual speakers. Their unique faith, based on the Old Testament, developed around the 9th century in Baghdad. It requires that the believers read the Hebrew Bible in their native language, in this case in Karaim. Thus, the language is indispensable in the religious practice. This has stimulated language revitalisation in post-Soviet times when religion again became the main factor in community life. Karaim Bible translations written in Hebrew script constitute a many centuries old unique cultural heritage. During Soviet times the community could not practice its religion, the community schools were closed down and the Karaim lost its economic integrity. The language ceased to play a crucial role in community life.
“Only the Karaim themselves can decide whether they want the language to survive in some form. Today language revitalisation is a priority on the agenda of the Karaim community. Summer schools organised each year and language course at Uppsala University give valuable academic support to revitalisation efforts.”
5. Pite Saami
Who speaks it: spoken by the Saami people in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.
How many people speak it: only around 20 speakers left out of a native population of 2,000.
How to say “Hello”: Buorist
Did you know? Pite Saami has no official written language.
Joshua Wilbur, from the University of Freiburg in Germany, is spending time in Swedish Lapland researching the traditional cultures of semi-nomadic reindeer herders and sedentary Pite Saami families:
“My current project focuses on how the Pite Saami language allows you to access culture and traditions, because there are certain words or ways of expressing things that are somehow linked intricately with the culture. The main bulk of my project is creating and archiving the documentation of the language before it’s no longer spoken. There is currently no written standard for Pite Saami, but we are in the process of creating one and hopefully by the end of the year there will be at least a proposal for a written language. People have been writing the language anyway, there just hasn’t really been a standard. There’s nothing like the Oxford Dictionary for Pite Saami.
“I work with about four or five main people who are fluent in Pite Saami, but they are all bilingual. If you only speak Pite Saami then you don’t have much of a chance in society here, you have to be at least bilingual to have an everyday job. Reindeer herding is still an active profession and the herders could maybe get away with only speaking Pite Saami, but not if they come to town for supplies. All the other traditional occupations, such as fishing and farming, aren’t really practiced anymore, so everyone has moved into town. Someone who speaks North Saami might be able to get a job in politics or as a teacher, but for Pite Saami, there aren’t enough teachers because there aren’t enough people. It’s a circular problem.
“Pite Saami has fallen out of use for a combination of reasons. There weren’t that many people that spoke it even 100 years ago so the population itself isn’t particularly big, but in the old days it was also spoken in Norway on the Norwegian side of the border with Sweden, and some state policies, particularly in the mid 20th century, were very colonial. Everyone had to learn to speak Swedish and people were basically forbidden, in some cases, to speak Pite Saami at school. It was really looked down upon. There was also the fact that it was generally accepted that kids should be monolingual, or they wouldn’t manage in school. It’s not the way we look at things now, but there’s a whole generation of speakers who were basically told that they weren’t any good because they were Pite Saami and they shouldn’t be bilingual, so their parents spoke Swedish with them. That had a devastating effect, because there’s basically a language gap in the generations and once that chain is broken, it’s really hard to recover.”