Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Language abundance and changes.
Figure 2: Factors correlating with language diversity.


  1. Chapin, F. S. et al. Consequences of changing biodiversity. Nature 405, 234–242 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Krause, M. The world's languages in crisis. Language 68, 4–10 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Crystal, D. Language Death (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2000)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  4. IUCN/SSC. Red List Categories and Criteria (IUCN Species Survival Commission, Gland, 1994)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Lande, R. Risks of population extinction from demographic and environmental stochasticity and random catastrophes. Am. Nat. 142, 911–927 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Stephens, P. A. & Sutherland, W. J. Consequences of the Allee effect for ecology and conservation. Trends Ecol. Evol. 14, 401–405 (1999)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Saccheri, I. et al. Inbreeding and extinction in a butterfly population. Nature 392, 491–494 (1998)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Grimes, B. F. (ed.) Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 14th edn (Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas, Texas, 2000)

  9. Birdlife International. Threatened Birds of the World (Lynx Edicions and Birdlife International, Barcelona and Cambridge, 2000).

  10. Balmford, A. et al. Conservation conflicts across Africa. Science 291, 2616–2619 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Myers, N. et al. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403, 853–858 (2000)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Nettle, D. Linguistic Diversity (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Nettle, D. Explaining global patterns of language diversity. J. Anthropol. Archaeol. 17, 354–374 (1998)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 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)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Morre, J. L. et al. The distribution of cultural and biological diversity in Africa. Proc R. Soc. Lond. B 269, 1645–1653 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., Menozzi, P. & Piazza, A. The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1994)

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  17. Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. Genes, Peoples and Languages (Penguin, London, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Nettle, D. Linguistic diversity of the Americas can be reconciled with a recent colonization. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 96, 3325 (1999)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Groombridge, B. & Jenkins, M. D. Global Biodiversity (World Conservation Press, Cambridge, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  20. FAO. State of the World's Forests 2001 (Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  21. World Factbook 2002 〈〉.

  22. Mitchel, T., Hulme, M. & Newl, M. Climate data for political areas. Area 34, 109–112 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World (Times Books, London, 1999)

  24. Brooks, T. in Threatened Birds of the World (eds Birdlife International) 701–708 (Lynx Edicions and Birdlife International, Barcelona and Cambridge, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I thank I. Côté, C. Crockford, R. Freckleton, J. Gill, P. Stephens and A. Watkinson for very useful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to William J. Sutherland.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares that he has no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Sutherland, W. Parallel extinction risk and global distribution of languages and species. Nature 423, 276–279 (2003).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing