There are global threats to biodiversity with current extinction rates well above background levels1. Although less well publicized, numerous human languages have also become extinct, and others are threatened with extinction2,3. However, estimates of the number of threatened languages vary considerably owing to the wide range of criteria used. For example, languages have been classified as threatened if the number of speakers is less than 100, 500, 1,000, 10,000, 20,000 or 100,000 (ref. 3). Here I show, by applying internationally agreed criteria for classifying species extinction risk4, that languages are more threatened than birds or mammals. Rare languages are more likely to show evidence of decline than commoner ones. Areas with high language diversity also have high bird and mammal diversity and all three show similar relationships to area, latitude, area of forest and, for languages and birds, maximum altitude. The time of human settlement has little effect on current language diversity. Although similar factors explain the diversity of languages and biodiversity, the factors explaining extinction risk for birds and mammals (high altitude, high human densities and insularity) do not explain the numbers of endangered languages.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Chapin, F. S. et al. Consequences of changing biodiversity. Nature 405, 234–242 (2000)
Krause, M. The world's languages in crisis. Language 68, 4–10 (1992)
Crystal, D. Language Death (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2000)
IUCN/SSC. Red List Categories and Criteria (IUCN Species Survival Commission, Gland, 1994)
Lande, R. Risks of population extinction from demographic and environmental stochasticity and random catastrophes. Am. Nat. 142, 911–927 (1993)
Stephens, P. A. & Sutherland, W. J. Consequences of the Allee effect for ecology and conservation. Trends Ecol. Evol. 14, 401–405 (1999)
Saccheri, I. et al. Inbreeding and extinction in a butterfly population. Nature 392, 491–494 (1998)
Grimes, B. F. (ed.) Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th edn (Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas, Texas, 2000)
Birdlife International. Threatened Birds of the World (Lynx Edicions and Birdlife International, Barcelona and Cambridge, 2000).
Balmford, A. et al. Conservation conflicts across Africa. Science 291, 2616–2619 (2001)
Myers, N. et al. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403, 853–858 (2000)
Nettle, D. Linguistic Diversity (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1999)
Nettle, D. Explaining global patterns of language diversity. J. Anthropol. Archaeol. 17, 354–374 (1998)
Mace, R. & Pagel, M. A latitudinal gradient in the density of human languages in North America. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 261, 117–121 (1995)
Morre, J. L. et al. The distribution of cultural and biological diversity in Africa. Proc R. Soc. Lond. B 269, 1645–1653 (2002)
Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., Menozzi, P. & Piazza, A. The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1994)
Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. Genes, Peoples and Languages (Penguin, London, 2001)
Nettle, D. Linguistic diversity of the Americas can be reconciled with a recent colonization. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 96, 3325 (1999)
Groombridge, B. & Jenkins, M. D. Global Biodiversity (World Conservation Press, Cambridge, 2000)
FAO. State of the World's Forests 2001 (Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 2000)
World Factbook 2002 〈http://www.worldbank.org〉.
Mitchel, T., Hulme, M. & Newl, M. Climate data for political areas. Area 34, 109–112 (2002)
The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World (Times Books, London, 1999)
Brooks, T. in Threatened Birds of the World (eds Birdlife International) 701–708 (Lynx Edicions and Birdlife International, Barcelona and Cambridge, 2000)
I thank I. Côté, C. Crockford, R. Freckleton, J. Gill, P. Stephens and A. Watkinson for very useful comments.
The author declares that he has no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Sutherland, W. Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species. Nature 423, 276–279 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01607
Economic Modelling (2021)
Should we save languages or their speakers?Decreasing linguistic and cultural diversity in heterogeneous Central-Eastern Europe: a psychological problem
Diaspora, Indigenous, and Minority Education (2020)
Rapidly escalating threats to the biodiversity and ethnocultural capital of Brazilian Indigenous Lands
Land Use Policy (2020)
Detecting change in local ecological knowledge: An application of an index of taxonomic distinctness to an ethnoichthyological classification in the Solomon Islands
Ecological Indicators (2020)
European Journal of Political Economy (2020)