21 February - International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day

This year on the 21 of February everyone was talking like “Oh, let’s speak Belarusian today”, “Hey, it’s the Belarusian language day”. But why was it so? Why this particular day, or language? Hardly anyone could answer that, so we decided to take a look back into history and find a proper explanation.

It was 17 November in 1999 when the General Conference of the UNESCO proposed to celebrate the International Mother Language Day on the 21 of February each year starting from 2000. The aim of this action was to promote the linguistic and cultural multiplicity around the world.

You might think it’s dull and useless, for there are hundreds of thousands of languages in the world, but don’t take it that easy. Tapani Salminen, the creator of The Red Book of Endangered Languages published by UNESCO, marked out 5, and later 6 categories of the world's languages in terms of extinction danger.

Let’s take a look on his classification.

The first category is “Extinct languages”. These are the languages that are actually dead, as all the native speakers have already passed away and no one speaks it any longer. For example Polabian, Prussian, Slovincian, Gothic, Kerek etc…

The second goes under the name “Nearly extinct languages”, i.e. the languages that are spoken by 10 elderly native speakers at the most, and not a single youngster knows them. Whish means that the language dies along with the last native speaker. Those languages are Livonian, Manchurian, Orok.

The next group is entitled “Seriously endangered languages”. Such languages are widely spoken by elder generation, but weren’t handed down to the younger generation. The Red Book names Ket language, Nivkh (or Gilyak), Selkup, Udege as examples.

After that Mr. Salminen places “Endangered languages”, which are spoken by elderly people and a constantly decreasing number of youngsters. Karelian, Komi, Irish, Kalmuck are among endangered ones.

The fifth category mentioned in The Red Book is “Potentially endangered languages”. These are the languages like Belorussian, Chukchi, Chechen, Yiddish, and Corsican. They are spoken by people of all ages, but do not possess formal status, or prestige, or have too narrow circulation to survive wars and any other great disasters.

The last, but not the least cluster is “Not endangered languages”. Speaking about languages like Polish, Finnish, French, English, Greek, Russian, Norwegian we can most certainly say, that those ones are so spread, that handling it down to the following generation won’t become a problem of any kind. So, these languages are not endangered according to The Red Book.

We should also mention so-called Ancient Languages, that are de-facto extinct for over 500 years, but the written sources of language (texts, books, etc.) are still in use somehow. The most common Ancient Language is, obviously, Latin, which is not only still read on, but also developed into numerous modern languages.

Anyway, there are several languages that cannot be categorized, so they form a special list (Hebrew, Cornish, Manx Gaelic).

Feels pretty awkward to find your mother tongue among the potentially endangered languages, don’t you think? Once I asked a friend of mine, who speaks Belorussian and never switches to Russian while talking to Russian-speaking compatriots, why she never comes back to Russian. Her answer made me feel somewhat ashamed. She said: “If only one speaks ones’ mother tongue one is rightful to talk about his or her cultural identity, and claim to be Belorussian (in our case)”.

So, this little research of ours shouldn’t be vain, and this led us, the team of BOSS, to a decision to cooperate with UNESCO on the lingual issue. And very soon you’ll have an opportunity to read the articles of this web-site and our other information sources in your native languages: Russian, Belarusian and English.

Now wish us all good luck and keep an eye on the updates! Cheers!


Article by: Vera Paltarzhytskaya

Translation by: Anna Demesh


20.02.2013 - 01:32