U. of Cambridge Web Site Aids Study of Endangered Languages

The next time you find yourself needing some help brushing up on your Guernésiais, or Guernsey French, the local form of the Gallic language that has been spoken on the tiny Channel Island for centuries and now boasts just 1,327 speakers, there is a new online database to direct you to available resources, including a series of recordings of native speakers and a radio interview with a scholar who specializes in the language.

The Endangered Languages Database, which was unveiled by the University of Cambridge on Thursday, is a free online portal that provides access to recordings, documents, maps, and other files relating to 3,524 world languages. The resource has been developed by researchers at the World Oral Literature Project, which is based at the university, and its developers hope to broaden its scope by crowdsourcing information from around the world.

“We want this database to be a dynamic and open resource, taking advantage of online technology to create a collaborative record that people will want to contribute to,” Mark Turin, director of the World Oral Literature Project, said in a written statement.

Users can search for information about a language based on the number of speakers it has, its level of endangerment, or the country or region where it is or was spoken. With estimates that more than half of the 6,500 languages that are spoken today will be extinct as spoken languages by the end of the century, the database is bound to expand quickly.

Britain alone accounts for 20 languages, including Cornish, Guernésiais, and Jèrriais, the version of the language spoken by just 2,874 people on the neighboring island of Jersey, as well as the now-extinct Old Kentish Sign Language. The Web site also includes information about Polari, a form of slang that, according to the university’s press release, was “once used by the likes of actors and circus or fairground communities, and which was then adopted by gay subcultures as a type of code language.”

A geographic search of the United States yields 282 listings—including endangered native languages such as the language of the Ahtena tribe of Alaska, which has just 80 speakers and is deemed “critically endangered” and “nearly extinct,” as well as the “severely endangered” Crimean Turkish, which is spoken by 456,341 people across the world.

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