What are the least common languages in Europe?

November 24, 2014 by Alison Tunley

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least common languages of Europe

There are 33 European languages that are on the verge of extinction, according to new research – but what are these least common languages, and how close are they to disappearing?

When you think of European languages, the obvious examples are always going to spring to mind – English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, the list goes on.

But how extensive is it? With more than 200 languages spread across nearly 50 countries, Europe is certainly a diverse region when it comes to the way we communicate with each other.

We’ve talked previously about some of the world’s hidden languages spoken within small communities, but to what extent does this apply to Europe? An average of approximately four languages per nation would suggest you might have to do quite a bit of studying if you wanted to speak the native tongue(s) of a particular country.

According to new research carried out by Berlin-based travel search engine GoEuro, there are 33 tongues across the continent that are on the verge of extinction. So how many have you heard of and would it even make a difference if they vanished for good?

Europe’s critically endangered languages

How do you define a language as being critically endangered? UNESCO says that in order to fall into this category, the tongue is only spoken by the grandparents of the society it exists in, and they tend to use it “partially or infrequently”.

The most critically endangered language in Europe is Livonian, a Latvian tongue that saw its last native speaker die in 2009. However, the reason it is critically endangered and not extinct is that it is still being taught in universities around Latvia, Finland and Estonia. Approximately 50 people currently use it as a second language.

Behind this is Karaim, which is spoken in a village around half an hour away from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Despite just 56 people still using it as their first language, experts predict that tourism – brought about as a result of a beautiful castle on an island in the area – gives this tongue a good chance of survival in the coming years.

Rare languages in the UK

Closer to home, you might be surprised to find there are even some tongues in the UK that are clinging on for dear life.

Although it was once considered completely dead, Manx – of the Isle of Man – has seen a revival, with over 1,000 students studying it at elementary school level and 100 more at secondary school, which still qualifies it for the list of least common languages of Europe.

Similarly, Cornish has slowly increased in its usage from as far back as the 19th century, with the tongue being adopted by scholars in songs and poetry. This eventually led to UNESCO upgrading its status from ‘extinct’ to ‘critically endangered’ in 2009.

Speaking to the Independent, Christopher Moseley at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies said: “It was an uphill battle because Manx had reached the point where the last first-language speaker died in 1974.”

“Since then they’ve been running classes and they have a school. Both that and Cornish are being revived in an organised way. Education is the most important thing.”

If that’s true, then there could yet be hope for many others in a similar position. You might not have heard of Toitschu (Italy), Cappadocian (Greece), Kildin Saami (Russia) or Saterlandic (Germany) before now, but GoEuro’s research could be another step towards their survival simply by raising awareness among the wider European community that that these least common languages of Europe even exist.

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