Download Linguistic Diversity chapter chapter 20

Download Appendix 20.1 Arctic indigenous languages status and trends


Lead Authors:  Tom Barry, Lenore Grenoble and Finnur Friðriksson 

Contributing Authors: Carl Chr. Olsen and Tero Mustonen


Photo: Magnus ElanderPhoto: Magnus Elander

The future is bleak for the majority of the languages currently spoken in the Arctic. If no action is taken, most are likely to become extinct in the next few generations. Twenty-one Arctic languages have become extinct since the 1800s and 10 of these extinctions have taken place after 1990, indicating an increasing rate of language extinction.

Twenty-eight languages classified as critically endangered are in dire need of attention before they, too, are lost forever. Over 70% of the Arctic’s indigenous languages are spoken only in single countries, and so are particularly exposed to the policies of a single government bringing with it the potential perhaps, for more effective conservation of these languages, as no cross border efforts are required. The remaining languages are spread across a number of jurisdictions and are therefore subject to differing approaches when it comes to addressing their revitalization.

Language revitalization in the Arctic is possible, and there are multiple examples to prove it. However, whether it is sufficiently important to invest the time and resources needed to make revitalization a reality, is a question that politicians in the Arctic need to ask themselves sooner rather than later. They will face in the future increasing pressure from the indigenous peoples they represent to take action. Many Arctic indigenous groups have already begun working on language revitalization, viewing it as an important component of their identity. The permanent participants of the Arctic Council look to political leaders to implement policies which will help them promote and sustain their indigenous languages.

This silence we named “Qarrtsiluni” which means waiting for something to burst forth. Inuit woman, Nunivak Island.


Language provides the conceptual and cognitive mechanisms via which humans perceive their environment, hence understanding language as a culturally embedded system of meaning is an important guide to understanding how humans adapt and act within their environment. Language not only communicates, it defines culture, nature, history, humanity and ancestry (UNESCO 2009). The indigenous languages of the Arctic have been formed and shaped in close contact with their environment1. Languages are a valuable source of information, and a wealth of knowledge on human interactions with nature is encoded in languages (UNESCO 2003; see Box 20.1).

The preservation of languages is a crucial step in allowing us to benefit from traditional knowledge and form a better understanding of our environment. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognizes that linguistic diversity is a useful indicator of the retention and use of traditional knowledge, including knowledge of biodiversity. It is, therefore, included in the suite of indicators used to assess progress towards meeting the CBD's 2020 biodiversity targets. With this in mind, this chapter considers the vitality of indigenous languages in the Arctic and their current status and trends.

The United Nations’ Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) has developed a framework comprised of nine factors which can be used to determine the vitality and state of endangerment of a language (UNESCO 2003). Eight of these are critical to understanding language vitality in the Arctic:

  • intergenerational transmission;
  • absolute numbers of speakers;
  • proportion of speakers within the total population;
  • trends in existing language domains;
  • response to new domains and media;
  • materials for language education and literacy;
  • governmental and institutional attitudes; and
  • community members’ attitudes toward their own language.

All of these factors are involved in situations of language shift and loss; they interact in complicated ways. For example, most linguists consider intergenerational transmission to be the single biggest indicator of language vitality, as children are future speakers. If a language has a large number of speakers and a relatively high proportion of the total ethnic population, then if a small percentage of the younger generation does not learn the language, it is not necessarily a sign of shift. The status of indigenous languages with even relatively large numbers of speakers, can change from ‘safe’ or ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ very rapidly, if a segment of the children cease learning the language; this is potentially the case with Inuktitut in Canada. In 2006, 64% of 32,200 Canadian Inuit reported Inuktitut as their mother language, representing a decline from 68% just 10 years earlier (Statistics Canada 2012). More to the point, only 50% report using Inuktitut as a home language (down from 58% in 1996), suggesting that children are not acquiring it (Statistics Canada 2012). These figures, along with other indicators, have led the Nunavut Language Commissioner to take specific actions, legislative and promotional, to foster the use of Inuktitut in all domains. As this suggests, efforts at strengthening indigenous languages need to take into account the multi-faceted nature of the contexts in which these languages are situated. Taken as a whole, these indicators are thus useful not only in assessing language vitality, but also in determining measures to revitalize them by pointing out areas in need of development.

This chapter looks at two of these criteria (absolute number of speakers and proportion of speakers within a total population) and applies them to the Arctic to provide an indication of the status and trends of indigenous languages. Scarcity of data did not allow for the remaining criteria to be applied at the circumpolar scale for all the languages considered in this chapter.



  • Encourage the development of improved methods for collecting data on language use and vitality in the Arctic.
  • Recognize the diverse richness of the Arctic’s indigenous languages, and acknowledge that their presser vation is a crucial step in allowing us to benefit from traditional knowledge and form a better understanding of our environment.
  • Encourage efforts to support language revitalization for the Arctic’s indigenous languages including sharing lessons from successful efforts.
  • Undertake an assessment of the Arctic’s indigenous languages to allow for a better understanding of their status and what needs to be done to insure their future vitality.

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