The Books section of the website of The Guardian newspaper here in the UK has a feature they call Top 10s. These are lists prepared by a prominent author featuring their pick of the top 10 items within a topic area, one usually connected to the publication of one of their books. There are the kinds of lists you might expect, like Sarah Anderson’s Top 10 books about wilderness, or Alison MacLeod’s top 10 short stories. But there are also cute ones like Simon Critchley’s top 10 philosophers’ deaths (would linguists’ deaths be quite so interesting?).
In connection with the recent publication of the book I edited called 1000 Languages, The Guardian asked me to prepare a Top 10 endangered languages list. “Great”, I thought, “given my interest in communicating about our work, here’s a way to reach thousands of Guardian readers and others and get them interested in what we do as linguists, as well as highlight some issues about endangered languages. But how do you pick 10 languages out of a potential list of 3,000 (or over 6,000 if Michael Krauss is to be believed?)”
It was an impossible task, so I figured I’d set some parameters and see what I came up with. I decided on the following rules of thumb:
- geographical coverage — if possible I wanted at least one language from each continent
- scientific interest — I wanted to include languages that linguists find interesting and important, because of their structural or historical significance, and that I hoped members of the public would find fascinating.
- cultural interest — if possible some information about interesting cultural and political aspects of endangered languages should be included
- social impact — if possible one or more situations showing why languages are endangered
In the end I did draw up a list of 10 endangered languages and submitted it by the deadline of last Monday. Which ones did I list? Well you’ll just have to check the Guardian website to find out.