8 Languages on the Edge of Extinction


Languages risk falling out of use when their speakers die out or change to speaking another language. Ranking them from the highest number of speakers to the least, here are 8 endangered languages that are at a risk of disappearing forever.

Original text by Asian Geographic Editoral Team (AG No. 120 05/2016)

Adapted for online publication by Tricia Ong


1. Sarikoli

East Tajikistan | 16,000 speakers

A Tajik traditional yurt in Pamir mountains, Tajikistan

Being part of the Pamiri dialect group, it is a group of endangered languages that is used by the highlanders of Tajikistan. Despite having a few thousand speakers, there is no written form of this language, depriving the distinct Sarikoli language of any chances of being passed down and retained. 


2. Tsez 

Tsunta District | 15,354 speakers

A Dagestanian girl waiting for her dancing round during Tatarstan’s Republic Day celebration in Kazan

Tsez (of Dido) is the threatened language of the group of Muslim people in the mountainous Tsunta district of southwestern Dagestan in Russia. It is described as having one of the most complicated sound systems – and by far the most complex case system – of any language. The name is said to derive from the Tsez word for ‘eagle’ indicating that the Tsez live high up in the mountains where eagles hover.


3. Ainu

Hokkaido, Japan | 100 speakers

Since the Japanese language was imposed on the Ainu, possibly Japan’s most ancient people, their native language has faced a serious threat of dying out. Although there are about 30,000 Ainu people today, the estimated number of speakers is less than 100. Along with Okinawan and Yaeyama, UNESCO’s language project lists five other Japanese languages as severely endangered. 


4. Naukan Yupik

Chukchi Peninsula | 70 speakers

Nenets stand near the tent on a holiday, “Day of the Reindeer Herders”, on Yamal

The lexicon of this language was first documented way back in 1732. Although only spoken in Siberia, Naukan is a linguistic intermediate between two other languages: Central Siberian Yupik of St. Lawrence Island and Yup’ik Eskimo, a tongue exclusive to southwestern Alaska. Until today, it is still undetermined whether Naukan is at heart a Siberian or an Alaskan language. 


5. Xyzyl

Scan from Khakas book Bukvar (1934)

Republic of Xakasia | 50-60 speakers

Originating from the Republic of Xakasia (or Khakassia), little is known about the Xyzyl language (pronounced ‘hizzle’). There are only 50-60 speakers in the Xyzyl territory, in Siberia to the northwest of Mongolia. Like most other dialects, the decline in use can be attributed to the standardization of Russian as the national language. While Xyzyl is recognised as an official dialect of Khakas (also spelled ‘Xakas’), the Xyzyl people insists that it is a separate language altogether. Both languages are written in the Cyrillic alphabet but research has shown that Xyzyl is effectively different from Khakas. 


6. S’aoch

Samrong Loeu Village, Cambodia | 10 speakers 

The numbers of S’aoch people were decimated under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), which had a policy of executing any S’aoch who dared to speak in their native tongue. In 2010, only 10 elderly members of the S’aoch indigenous minority still spoke the language. 


7. Kusunda

Nepal | 7-8 speakers

Ghanduk Village in the Gandaki Zone of northern-central Nepal – one of the last areas with Kusunda speakers

Kusunda is considered a ‘language isolate’, meaning that it is not phonologically, morphologically, syntactically and lexically related to any other language in the world. It belongs to the fast disappearing Kusunda tribe made up of nomadic people who refer to themselves as myak in their native tongue.


8. Mednyj Aleut

Bering Island, 5 speakers

Characterised by its fusion of Russian and Aleut, the first speakers were children who had one parent of each decent! The language they created and passed on is similar to Aleut, but with Russian verb endings and Russian words mixed into their vocabulary. Mednyj Aleut was originally spoken on Mednyj Island, off the coast of Kamchatka. However, that population was moved to Bering Island in 1970.  As of the early 2000s, there were only 5 fluent speakers left. 


Read “On the Edge of Extinction” in Asian Geographic’s No. 120 05/2016 “Languages of Asia” edition here or download a digital copy here! Do look out for the latest issue coming to shelves soon, or reserve your copy today by emailing marketing@asiangeo.com


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