by Tego Wolasa
Ethnologue puts the number of languages in the world today at 7,117. They say that 40% or 2800 of them are endangered and often with less than 1000 speakers.
According to UNESCO, the number of endangered languages is 2,473 while 200 have become extinct over the last three generations.
Some languages, such as Yagan in Chile, has only one living speaker while others, such as English, have over 1.3billion speakers.
Other endangered languages include Arabana of Australia with five speakers, Votic in Russia eight speakers, Ainu of Japan ten speakers, Bathari of Oman twenty speakers, Manchu of china twenty speakers.
In Africa, there are languages such as Yaaku of Kenya with seven elderly speakers as of 2016, Twendi of Cameroon 30 speakers, Nluu of South Africa 84 speakers, and Ts’ixa of Botswana 200 speakers.
With 1.3billion speakers, English is the most spoken and the most studied language, followed by Mandarin 1.12billion and Hindi 637million.
According to UNESCO, English is spoken in 101 countries, Arabic in 60 countries, and French in 51 countries. The top 23 languages are spoken by half of the over 7billion people in the world.
Wolfgang Sachs posits that not more than 100 of the above languages will survive within a generation or two.
WHAT CONSTITUTE AN ENDANGERED LANGUAGE?
Glottog classifies language on a six-level scale starting from “not endangered”, “threatened”, “shifting”, “moribund”, “nearly extinct”, and “extinct”.
Ethnologue has four stages of language classification – “Institutional” if the language is not only used in the homes but also sustained by institutions such as schools. “Stable” if there is no institution supporting it but is the primary language to adults and children at home. “Endangered” if children are not learning and using it. And Finally, “Extinct” if there is no speaker left.
UNESCO bases its classification on the intergenerational transfer of the language. A language is either “Safe” (not endangered), “vulnerable” (not spoken by children outside the home), “definitely endangered” (children not speaking), “severely endangered” (only spoken by the elderly), “critically endangered” (few elders speak broken) and “extinct” (no living speakers).
A Linguist, Michael Krauss, classified a language as “safe” when the children will probably be speaking them in 100 years— “endangered” if children will probably not be speaking the language in 100 years, and “moribund” if children are not speaking the language now.
Based on the above classifications, it is perhaps safe to state that a language’s health does not primarily depend on the number of those who speak the language. It depends on the language transfer from parents to children and its usage in and outside the home.
A language with only 500 speakers used by adults and their children at home and outside is safer and healthier than a language spoken by millions if their children do not acquire the language.
SO, WHAT IS THE STATUS OF BURJI LANGUAGE?
Ethnologue classified the Burji language as “institutional.” That means it is used and sustained by institutions beyond the home and community.
According to Glottog, the language is “threatened.” That is the second stage after “not endangered.”
In my opinion, we have to relook at the classifications. For starters, the Burji language belongs to the Highland East Cushitic (HEC) group of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.
It is in the same category as Alaaba, Gedeo, Hadiyya, Kambaata, K’abeena, Libido/Marek’o, Sidaama, and T’imbaaro. Only the Burji language is spoken both in Kenya and Ethiopia from the HEC family.
HERE IS WHY I THINK THE BURJI LANGUAGE IS NOT DISAPPEARING ANYTIME SOON
I suspect that those of you reading this article from outside the Burji District might find my claims far-fetched.
The Burji people today are settled in four clusters; In Burji District, Outside the Burji District but within Ethiopia, In Kenya, and abroad (outside Kenya and Ethiopia).
In Burji District, the language is safe and healthy because both adults and children speak it. Similarly, children are acquiring the language from their parents. Besides, The language is fully institutionalized.
In other parts of Ethiopia, the Burji speak either Burji, Oromigna, or Amharic as their first language. In Kenya, the Burji speak either Burji, Borana, or Swahili. Those abroad speak either Burjate, Oromigna, English or Swahili.
A 2006 Marsabit-based study by Dr. Keneth Ngure found that 59.4% of the Burji speak Burji as the first language, 36.2% speak Borana while 4.3% speak Swahili as the first language.
Now let the numbers speak. According to the 2007 National Census in Ethiopia, there were 56,681 Burji speakers in the Burji District and 15,077 speakers in other parts of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is yet to conduct another Census.
The 2009 Census in Kenya put the Burji Population at 23,735. I used the 2009 census because it is the one closest to the 2007 Ethiopian Census.
Based on the above, we have 59% of Burji speakers in Burji District, 16% in other parts of Ethiopia, and 25% in Kenya.
In the Burji District, where we have 59% of the speakers, the language is safe, healthy, and institutionalized. It is being transferred well from parents to the children.
That percentage could be higher because some parents living outside the Burji District have been able to transfer the language to their children, but I haven’t even considered that.
Neither have I considered institutionalization such as the online Burji Language classes by Buruuj Training Institute nor Burji language diploma course at the Dilla College of Teacher Education. We also have daily broadcast in Burji Language at KBC Burji Services in Kenya
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
Now tell me, how would you classify such a language? A language that is safe and healthy in more than 60% of places where it exists? I will leave that to you.
In the comment section, please give me your thoughts on what is making the language endangered in other parts of Ethiopia and Kenya.
Also, share your thoughts on turning around the language’s dwindling prospects in those two areas. Would you?
Over to you, Rudano.